"The Dark Side of the Sun" Looks at how Scientists are Working to Understand Our Brightest Star

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06 February 2017
The Dark Side of the Sun
Photo Courtesy of Discovery Channel
"The Dark Side of the Sun"
Premieres Saturday, February 11 at 10 PM ET/PT on Discovery Channel
and then Sunday, February 12 at 9 PM ET/PT on Science Channel
          What would happen if the sun took out our electrical power grid for an entire year? It may sound like the plot of a sci-fi movie, but this doomsday scenario could actually happen. Despite its calm appearance, the sun is a violent place, constantly releasing huge masses of energy known as coronal mass ejections. These storms have hit the earth before. The last big one struck more than 150 years ago in the Victorian era taking out worldwide telegraph service. The impact of a similar storm would be far more destructive in our modern age of hyper-connected telecommunication and total reliance on electricity and electronics.  Fortunately, scientists and engineers are building the world’s largest solar telescope and launching the first ever spacecraft to fly to the sun to help us predict these potentially devastating events – and prepare for them.

          Premiering as the centerpiece of Science Channel Weekend on Discovery Channel, “THE DARK SIDE OF THE SUN” tells the story of our growing awareness of the true nature of our star, its critical importance to all life on Earth, and its potentially harmful effects on modern civilization. Narrated by Grammy®- and Emmy®-winning and Oscar®-nominated artist Sting and directed by twice Oscar®-nominated filmmaker Nathaniel Kahn (“My Architect,” “Two Hands,”) and award winning filmmaker Paul Bozymowski (“Generation Astronaut,” “Sting: When the Last Sails,” and produced by Academy® and Emmy® Award-winning production company RadicalMedia (“What Happened, Miss Simone?” “THE DARK SIDE OF THE SUN,” premieres Saturday, February 11 at 10pm ET/PT.  Science Channel will broadcast the film the following evening at 9pm ET/PT.  In addition, throughout the weekend, Discovery will air Science themed programming including last year’s “Telescope,” “Mythbusters,” “Mythbusters: The Search,” and “What on Earth?”

         Featuring scientists and engineers from NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), and the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy (AURA) the film offers unprecedented access to two cutting edge projects that will put us on the brink on solving the sun’s mysteries. “THE DARK SIDE OF THE SUN” highlights the National Science Foundation’s Daniel K. Inouye Solar Telescope (DKIST), which will focus its enormous mirror on our star, revealing never before seen detail. The largest solar telescope in history, DKIST is currently under construction atop a mountain known as Haleakal?, “the house of the sun,” in Maui, Hawaii, and is expected to be completed next year. Also under construction in the clean rooms of the Johns Hopkins, Applied Physics Lab, is NASA’s Solar Probe Plus, a spacecraft designed to fly to the sun and unlock the secrets of the corona, the mysterious hazy cloud that surrounds the sun and that can be seen during a total solar eclipse — like the one that will be visible across large parts of the United States in August 2017.
         One of the crucial reasons for building DKIST and Solar Probe Plus is to get advance warning about potentially catastrophic solar storms. The last huge one to hit Earth was in 1859. Known as the “Carrington Event,” it almost brought the British Empire to its knees, setting telegraph wires on fire and lighting up the sky around the world with Northern Lights or “Aurora Borealis” so intense that people were able to read a newspaper at night. If the same scale storm were to happen today, it could fry power grids, knock out satellites and GPS systems, and cripple our information-age communications systems, setting us back decades and causing trillions of dollars of damage.
         Yet, with enough warning, systems can be powered down before such a storm hits, and we can protect ourselves from devastating loss. A coronal mass ejection of the scale experienced during the Carrington Event is believed to impact the earth roughly once every 100 years.  This means we are overdue for the next big one. 

The Dark Side of the Sun
Photo Courtesy of Discovery Channel

         Given what we now know about the threat of solar storms, the federal government realized how vulnerable we are to these scenarios, and President Obama signed an executive order in October 2016 to engage agencies in building a master plan.  As FEMA Director Craig Fugate explains in the film, “If you know and have a plan, then hopefully the power will be out for hours to days.  Because the system was warned, took steps, protected itself, and now we are talking about re-starting the system versus having to rebuild the system.”
          The Applied Physics Lab at Johns Hopkins University is working on NASA’s Solar Probe Plus mission, which is scheduled to launch in the summer of 2018. Decades in planning, this groundbreaking spacecraft is NASA’s first ever mission to “touch” the sun. According to NASA, “The probe will provide new data on solar activity and make critical contributions to our ability to forecast major space-weather events that impact life on Earth. The spacecraft will actually plunge several times through the sun’s atmosphere, facing brutal heat and radiation conditions – and ultimately providing humanity with the first ever close-up view of a star.”  Matt Mountain, President of Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy (AURA) who is also featured in the film adds, “Today, we get only 48 minutes warning if a major and potentially devastating coronal mass ejection from our Sun will hit the Earth.  Solar Probe Plus and the Daniel K. Inouye Solar Telescope are designed to give us deeper insight into the darker side of our Sun, so in future we will be able to predict when such dangerous events actually leave the solar surface. This will give us 48 hours to protect our communications and GPS satellites, power grids and the internet from such a potentially devastating 'Carrington type' event. These two missions are a crucial next step towards keeping us safe from the Dark Side of the Sun.”
          Our sun is a middle-aged star, and it will one day become a red giant engulfing the earth, before it fades away as a white dwarf. Understanding its inner workings may help us develop nuclear fusion technologies that will allow us to one day leave our planet before the sun eventually destroys all life on earth.  As we enter into a golden age of our solar observations, researchers are excited and hopeful about uncovering a full picture of our star and its atmosphere. As Mountain, exclaims, “That’s what being a modern species is. To understand our universe, to be able to understand how the world works…that’s a good reason to get up in the morning…to actually look out and say, ‘We can make a difference by observing.’”


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