Solar flare sidelines rocket launch

Posted: Thursday, September 27, 2001

ANCHORAGE (AP) -- A strong solar flare has sidelined the first orbital-bound rocket from the Kodiak Launch Complex.

The launch of the Lockheed Martin Athena 1 rocket carrying four satellites into orbit was put on standby Wednesday after the solar flare produced a proton storm that remained high enough to knock out the rocket's guidance system, NASA spokesman George Diller said.

''This is the second largest solar flare event that's been reported in the last 30 years,'' he said.

''It's big,'' added physicist Mark Conde, an upper atmospheric and aurora specialist at the Geophysical Institute in Fairbanks.

Effects from the storm varied. Certain satellites monitoring the sun for NASA have stopped transmitting accurate data, and some high frequency radio transmissions have been disrupted in Alaska.

Solar storms have hampered systems outside Alaska, including a massive power outage in Quebec in 1989.

This event, part of the still-peaking 11-year solar cycle, was triggered early Monday morning when a ''coronal mass ejection'' exploded toward Earth from the sun, producing a brilliant flare followed by particles, according to NASA's Web site.

The flare peaked about 2:30 a.m. Alaska time, but took six hours to die off, Conde said. The X-ray burst crossed the 93 million miles to Earth in seven or eight minutes.

''Protons started to ramp up at about (3:30 a.m. ADT),'' Conde said Wednesday. ''Over the next seven hours, they continued to increase in number. . . . Right now, as we speak, we're still seeing something like 500 times the intensity that we experienced right before the event.''

The slower-moving solar wind reached Earth on Tuesday afternoon in what NASA called an ''interplanetary shockwave'' that was expected to trigger widespread auroras.

By Wednesday, the effects of the magnetic storm were subsiding.

In Kodiak, 173 scientists and technicians had gathered for the Narrow Cape launch, which has been delayed three times since August for various reasons, Diller said. A new launch would be set as soon as it was safe, with 48 hours notice.

The $38 million project will also launch a unique orbiter, partially built by school children, on a global journey that can be followed with the naked eye.

The Starshine 3 satellite -- a three-foot sphere covered with 1,500 aluminum mirrors polished by children in classrooms worldwide -- will gather information about how the upper atmosphere reacts to solar radiation.

''It would have been nice to have it up there right now,'' Diller said. ''But that's the launch business.''

The launch would have been the fourth from the Kodiak rocket complex, but the first orbital launch.

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