HUNTSVILLE, Ala. (WHNT) - "This is kind of a grand problem in solar physics - to figure out how solar eruption works," explains Dr. Qiang Hu
The simulation models almost look like digital spaghetti, but a leading mind in the field says that it's one of the most important and complicated astrophysics problems around.
Dr. Qiang Hu is part of the team working to predict sol eruptions.
At his desk, next to pictures of his kids are pictures of solar activity, because this isn't just an academic exercise.
We're talking about protecting the planet from what could be a pretty devastating event, if a solar eruption caught us off guard.
Of course, astronauts would face the most direct impact.
They orbit outside the earth's natural magnetic shield - meaning a solar flare up could expose them to a dangerous amount of cosmic rays and radiation.
These models could help warn astronauts to take precautionary measures, maybe even saving lives.
But an eruption on the surface of the sun could hit us all the way back here on the surface of the earth too.
Hu notes, "There was a very known event in 1989 that a big solar storm basically took out an electricity transformer."
Basically, there was a big solar flare up, and it cut out the lights for hundreds of thousands of people in Quebec.
But the power might be the least of the problems the sun could cause. Dr. Hu says it could also knock out radio communications and cell phone communications.
So with an unpredicted solar storm - the lights go out, and no one knows what to do. You can't make a cell phone call, so you can't reach your loved ones or report any problems, like looting. Plus, radio communications go down, so emergency workers can't keep in touch.
And now you see why predicting a solar eruption can make such a huge difference, and why this digital spaghetti requires so much attention.
Thankfully, they have a truly global team working on it.
Dr. Hu says Dr. Shi Wu has organized an international cooperation of scientists, including many counterparts in China. All of them are working to hone the model that will allow scientists to give warning of solar eruptions.
The hope, according to Dr. Hu, is that eventually scientists could provide a day or two of warning.