BOULDER — Tuesday was kind of a big day for sun-watchers.
Not because the "Coronal Mass Ejection" event you may have heard about posed any real danger to Earth. It inconvenienced some air travelers and provided reason for caution in space, but most of us were never going to notice the celestial spitball of plasma hurtling toward us at 4 million mph.
No, it was a big day at the Space Weather Prediction Center in Boulder because the scientists there once again nailed a forecast, accurately predicting not only the arrival time of the big plasma ball, give or take 30 minutes, but also the relatively modest impact.
"This was a great test for us," said physicist Douglas Biesecker.
Biesecker got a call a little after 9 p.m. Sunday, after the genius on duty at the prediction center first saw evidence of a significant solar flare emanating from a sunspot they had been watching. Within an hour or so, he was at the agency's operations center, a modest array of computer terminals facing a bank of screens showing real-time views of the sun and data on radiation collected from satellites and ground stations.
He began putting numbers into a relatively new computer program developed at the center named Enlil, after the Sumerian god of wind. (Like you didn't know that already.) The program went to work, modeling solar winds and plotting the plasma's 93-million-mile journey from sun to Earth.
That all makes it sound rather pedestrian. But as physical scientist David Marshall of the center explained, it is the equivalent of poking a hole in a basketball at one end of a court and correctly forecasting when some of the expelled air would hit the head of a pin at the other end.
This is why it would be a bad idea to challenge the scientists at the Space Weather Prediction Center to a game of Scrabble. Or chess, or Monopoly, or anything else involving words or numbers. They are smarter than us.
Fortunately, they have chosen to use their power for good. They are an arm of the U.S. Department of Commerce, and they understand that their primary role is to make sure the sun does not mess up, well, commerce. Their little office in Boulder is the world's source for information on solar weather.
In a worst-case scenario, a blast of unexpected or poorly forecast radiation could knock an unprepared power grid off line. Unwarned airlines could fly into areas where their high-frequency radio systems failed, cutting off communication with the ground.
"None of that will happen as long as we do our jobs right," said Marshall.
The center's warnings allowed cross-polar flights on Tuesday to avoid the poles and fly slightly closer to the equator, where radios worked. It added time and fuel costs to flights but beat the alternative.
The center has always been good at forecasting, but Enlil, and other continuing research, gives the staff a chance to get even closer to pinpointing impacts and times during solar events. They all cautioned that Enlil remains promising-but-unproven technology and acknowledged that they are 50 years behind terrestrial weather-watchers in terms of knowledge and research. But there were no glum faces in the room as data rolled in Tuesday morning showing that their forecasts of this event were right on the money.
Space and weather forecasting are convenient targets of the small-minded in Congress. Put them together, and it is something of a miracle that the discipline has survived this long. The Senate briefly zero-funded the center in 2004 before wiser heads prevailed.
Today, there seems to be no immediate threat to the center's budget security. That's good, because next spring is "Solar Max" — the peak of activity on the sun in its 11-year cycle. This will be the first Solar Max since the advent of social media, and Tuesday showed that it will be more important than ever to have cool, rational heads watching the sun and putting out accurate information.
"It's very dangerous to have someone latch on to the idea that plasma is headed toward the Earth without understanding it," Marshall said. "Jess (Whittington, a center physicist) has gotten Facebook questions all day about whether people should run for the bunkers. We can answer."