Transcript of "Blackout: The Sun-Earth Connection", Part 3 - The Solar Wind and the Earth

The Earth is about 150 million kilometers or about 93 million miles away from the sun. It takes light about 8 1/2 minutes to travel that distance. So, the sunlight you see right now actually left the Sun 8 1/2 minutes ago.

If you were able to ride the Space Shuttle to the Sun, traveling at about 5 kilometers per second, it would take more than 11 months to get there... almost an entire year.

When the sun blasts this plasma into space, it rockets at speeds greater than 450 kilometers per second. That's more than 1 million miles per hour. It's traveling so fast that it takes about 3 days for this plasma to reach Earth. And this stuff isn't lightweight. Several billion tons of plasma are shot out in these explosions.

When this billion-ton cloud of plasma from the sun passes by Earth, it causes disturbances in Earth's magnetic field, and these disturbances tend to accelerate particles that are already trapped in Earth's field.

[Dr. Sten Odenwald] "The Earth's field is shaped very much like a bar magnet, (but the solar wind stretches it into a comet-like shape with a long tail. In fact, the tail stretches well beyond the orbit of the Moon and is completely invisible."

"As it is pulled and stretched by a solar storm, it releases energy and accelerates particles into the polar regions. As these charged particles rain into the ionosphere and upper atmosphere above the poles, they release tremendous amounts of energy as they react with the gases in Earth's atmosphere. This interaction gives those living in northern and southern latitudes an eerie light show called the Aurora Borealis or Aurora Australis."

"If you are lucky enough to see aurora, they can be quite spectacular. They can have many shapes - complicated and simple, from serpents crawling around the sky, to curtains of light, and the colors in them depend almost entirely on the severity of the storm."

[Narrator] But, as we mentioned earlier, these particles have effects that aren't so beautiful...