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PBS NewsHour

Oozy lava and solar cannonballs: Here are two hot spots we can’t extinguish


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JUDY WOODRUFF: There are moments when the power of nature and the elements and the destruction they can cause simply capture everyone’s attention and make you wonder about your place in the universe.

This week, the lava flow on Hawaii’s Big Island that’s forced people to abandon homes and a sunspot the size of planet Jupiter are providing such a moment.

Hari Sreenivasan has a look at the scientific phenomena behind all this.

HARI SREENIVASAN: The National Guard itself began trying to help Hawaiians today. The lava that began flowing this summer from the volcano on Mount Kilauea is endangering a small community of about 950 residents.

It may be moving slowly, at speeds of just five to 10 miles an hour, but there’s been no way to stop it. And now it’s started to burn homeowners’ property there.

At the same time, a whole different set of fiery images from space may also be in your daily news feed. It’s the largest sunspot in more than two decades. Federal officials have warned frequently about the possibility that solar flares could potentially disrupt navigation systems and radio frequencies.

Science correspondent Miles O’Brien is with us again tonight.

So, Miles, let’s start with this planet first.

When we think of lava, we think of huge explosions and volcanoes like Mount Saint Helens or other places, but that’s not what we’re talking about here.


With Mount Saint Helens, the more recent volcano eruption in Japan, what we had was called a pyroclastic flow. And that’s like a — think of it as a steam-heated hurricane. It can travel at — in excess of 100 miles per hour, carry boulders with it, and can catch people off guard, as we saw most recently in Japan.

This is the other side of the equation for volcanoes, these oozy lava volcanoes that you see in Hawaii which have been erupting sort of in sort of slow motion. And they move and the fissures crack and lava appears in different places. And what we’re seeing here now is, of course, as the lava changes its pattern, the patterns of human settlement have changed as well.

There are more people living there. And that’s where the collision is right here.

HARI SREENIVASAN: So, what sort of dangers does this lava pose, in terms of the gases coming off of it, or the infrastructure that it threatens if it cuts across roads?

MILES O’BRIEN: All kinds of toxic gases associated with volcanoes, sulfur dioxide, many others which can be hazardous.

One thing about lava, of course, even though this is kind of a slow-motion train wreck, there’s no stopping it. There’s no putting up a dam to stop lava. This is, after all, the molten core of the earth. It’s hot and there’s no stopping it.

And so people have got to, unfortunately, respect that, and step away from the lava. You know, we’re talking about the center of the Ring of Fire here in the Pacific. And, you know, essentially, the Earth sits on 17 giant tectonic plates. That’s what we’re sitting on right now.

We’re kind of floating on a sea of magma. And wherever there are little cracks in those plates, you get problems. You either get earthquakes or you get volcanoes. And sometimes it’s that oozy lava that we see in Hawaii.

HARI SREENIVASAN: So, we often have a tendency to think that we can engineer our way around anything.

And speaking of things that we have very little, to no control over, these giant sunspots that we have been seeing, there are scientific instruments and people that essentially stare at the sun all day long, 24/7.

What is it about what’s been happening over the recent past that have them so concerned?


Of course, we would advise people not to stare at the sun unless they take precautions, of course. But we’re talking about a giant sunspot, about equivalent to the 20 Earth diameters, which is hard to even comprehend. Scientists have been watching is it now for two weeks. It just disappeared. The sun rotates about every 25 days all the way around.

And so, for about two weeks, this giant sunspot is on the backside, if you will. Huge solar flares come off of it. We haven’t seen the other thing that can occur, which is the so-called coronal mass ejection.

Now, a good analogy for this is, you think of a cannon shot. The flash is the solar flare. The cannonball itself is the coronal mass ejection. In this case, we’re seeing the flash, but no cannonball. In either case, we can expect disruptions in communication here on our planet, because we rely more and more on space-based assets, satellites, in order to communicate and run our infrastructure.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Put these explosions in perspective for us. One of the places that I read, this is something like a billion of the nuclear power that we dropped on Hiroshima.

MILES O’BRIEN: Yes, I mean, imagine that. It’s really hard to comprehend it all.

So you can understand why when this energy interacts with the Earth’s magnetic field, it can cause havoc with the high-frequency communications used by things like the GPS system, or, for that matter, think of the satellite that we’re using right now to communicate with each other.

If this was in the middle of a serious solar flare or a coronal mass ejection, we might very well be turning to snow right now. So, we’re vulnerable because of the nature of our infrastructure. And that’s why scientists carefully watch this. There actually is a fairly sophisticated space weather forecasting capability out there, so that the power grids and the satellite operators can, if they have to, go into safe mode.

Incidentally, there are residents on board the International Space Station which in some cases might have to take shelter if a coronal mass ejection was headed our way.

HARI SREENIVASAN: All right, science correspondent Miles O’Brien, hopefully a coronal mass ejection doesn’t interrupt with this segment. Thanks so much for joining us.

MILES O’BRIEN: All right. You’re welcome, Hari.

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Your eyes could open your bank account or play “World of Warcraft”

In the future, security will be in the eye of the beholder. Texas State University computer scientists are developing a program that will scan users’ eyes to unlock their digital accounts.

“Biometrics is a science that studies or identifies a person based on what a person is, not what a person remembers such as a password,” says Oleg Komogortsev, a computer scientist at Texas State University.

Ocular biometerics is more than scanning a person’s iris. Komogortsev’s software also tracks eye movement, analyzing where the user is looking. That data could be used to interpret how a person is viewing information, or how they’re feeling, ie. if they are fatigued or stressed.

Komogortsev was developing a biomathematical model of the human eye as a graduate student when he came up with the idea for the technology. An avid gamer, he wanted access to a pre-release of Blizzard Entertainment’s popular “World of Warcraft”. But the early release of the game cost $17,000. So he wrote to Blizzard Entertainment and proposed a method which allowed disabled users to control their characters with their eyes, not their hands.

The potential applications took off from there. Komogortsev and his team believe the technology would be usable with just a software upgrade. Not only could it be used for security and gaming, but it could be useful in diagnosing a concussion from a football player’s helmet, for example.

Miles O’Brien has more on this eye-opening technology for the National Science Foundation series “Science Nation.”

*For the record, the National Science Foundation is also an underwriter of the NewsHour.

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Rocket explosion raises questions about commercial space travel safety


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JUDY WOODRUFF: Let’s turn to some concerns being raised all over again about the privatization of the U.S. space program.

This follows the explosion last night of a rocket that was scheduled to go to the International Space Station. Seconds after launch, the rocket exploded at the Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia owned by Orbital Sciences Corporation and contracted through NASA. It was supposed to deliver 5,000 pounds of supplies and experiments to the space station.

NASA reported no problems just before the launch. Now there are many questions about what went wrong and whether old engines are to blame.

Our science correspondent, and resident space expert, Miles O’Brien joins us from South Carolina tonight.

So, Miles, welcome back.

Problems with the engine. What’s known about what happened?

MILES O’BRIEN: Well, we can’t say for certain, but all roads lead to suspicion about the engine.

You have to ask yourself, what is operating at that stage of flight? First, you know, 10 seconds, give or take, is the first-stage engines, which are these 40-year-old engines. And we’re not talking about 40-year-old technology. These are actually engines that go back to the Soviet era, were put in a warehouse, and were purchased by Orbital Sciences, refurbished, and put on this rocket.

So, these were old engines, old designs. And you see the rocket kind of lurch, almost stop in its tracks. You see something falling through the plume. You see a discoloration in the rocket plume. And then very shortly thereafter, things go bad very quickly. Not long after that, they pushed the red button, which terminates the vehicle, as they say, the destruct button.

So the suspicion is focused squarely on the engines.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Was there reason to suspect these engines ahead of time?

MILES O’BRIEN: Well, they have had some difficulty with them on test stands, a couple of incidents, as they tested them, where they actually blew up with fuel line problems, and other issues. They date back to the Soviet effort to go to the moon with the giant N1 rocket, which had multiple launchpad failures.

So these rockets have had trouble, but all rockets have trouble. This is a very difficult business going from zero to 17,500 miles per hour in the span of about 8.5 minutes. So, if you have the tiniest little leak or a turbo pump that goes awry, you’re going to have problems. Things have to work perfectly.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Miles, how typical is it that engines that old are being used in spaceflight?

MILES O’BRIEN: I don’t know of any other scenario where that has occurred, Judy. This is — this is unusual.

And this is — says a lot about overall policy. Orbital Sciences, when it came time to pick an engine, didn’t have a lot of places to go. There were no homegrown U.S. engines available to them. The Russians make another type of engine called an RD-180, a much bigger engine, but that engine was being purchased en masse by a consortium of Boeing and Lockheed Martin called the United Launch Alliance.

And they were precluded from purchasing those engines. So they really didn’t have any place to turn. This idea of taking these engines that were sitting in a warehouse, refurbishing them, and using them seemed to be the only alternative. And I think we can all agree it’s probably better to build your own engines if you can.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And I noticed the Russians had a successful takeoff of one of their own rockets shortly after this — after this explosion and failure.

Miles, just quickly, no safety issue with regard to the space station?


And that launch points it out. There’s plenty of paths to the station. That Russian Progress freighter is on its way. California-based SpaceX is on the docks to launch in December and February. The station — nobody on the station is going to go hungry.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, finally, commercial space travel, does this raise a question about its viability in the future? Or is this considered a one-off?

MILES O’BRIEN: Well, it should raise questions, and rightly so. If you have an accident and you don’t ask questions, you’re never going to learn.

The real question is, you know, NASA never has built a rocket on its own. It’s always used contractors, Boeing and Lockheed Martin and their predecessor companies. What’s different now is the way they do the contracts. They’re not on the factory floor, as it were, watching how every bolt is turned and so forth.

Instead, they’re sort of, instead of being on the floor where the Ford is made, they’re purchasing the car in the showroom, but with setting some parameters. And working out the right balance there, how to set the safety standards and how to fine-tune the level of scrutiny, is kind of a work in progress.

And this will be one of the things that will come out of this investigation is, has the bar been set properly both on safety and the level of scrutiny that NASA is applying to these commercial entities?

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, again, thankfully, no loss of life, no injuries.


JUDY WOODRUFF: Miles O’Brien, we thank you.

MILES O’BRIEN: You’re welcome, Judy.

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There’s a giant spot on the sun, and it’s acting weird

The bright light in the lower right region of the sun shows an X-class solar flare on Oct. 26, 2014, as captured by NASA's
         SDO. This was the third X-class flare in 48 hour. Image by NASA/SDO

The bright light in the lower right region of the sun shows an X-class solar flare on Oct. 26, 2014, as captured by NASA’s SDO. This was the third X-class flare in 48 hour. Image by NASA/SDO

By the time the giant spot on the sun rotated into view on October 18, it was already 80,000 miles wide, big enough to fit all of Jupiter, big enough to lay 10 Earths, side by side, across. It is the largest spot the sun has harbored in 24 years.

But while most erupting sunspots lob chunks of plasma outward in events called coronal mass ejections, this one’s keeping its plasma close to the surface.

To rewind, a sunspot is a darker, cooler area on the sun’s visible surface that stores intense magnetic energy. (Note: Cooler, in this case, means roughly 7,500 degrees Fahrenheit, down from about 10,000 degrees Fahrenheit.)

A close-up of AR12192 takenon October 21, 2014 from Langkawi Nagtional Observatory, Malaysia. Image by Karzaman Ahmad
         and shared at

A close-up of AR12192 taken on Oct. 21, 2014, from Langkawi Nagtional Observatory, Malaysia. Image by Karzaman Ahmad and shared at

The sun is not a solid body. It’s a ball of hot, hot ionized gas called plasma that’s threaded with magnetic field, created by charged particles moving around. The sun spins faster at its equator, and the result is that some of that magnetic field drags, getting twisted and knotted up in the process. As this happens, these knots of magnetic field gain energy, pressure and buoyancy, and some of them float to the surface, and penetrate it, popping out.

“It’s kind of like having a rubber band that you twist and twist, and it starts to knot up,” said C. Alex Young, associate director for science at NASA Goddard’s Heliophysics Science Division. “The same sort of thing is happening with magnetic fields. They become more twisted, they get more concentrated, and eventually you have to get rid of that energy.”


The result: a spewing forth of ionized gas.

Releasing this pent-up energy typically takes two forms: a solar flare or a coronal mass ejection, and this is key to what makes the behavior here unusual. A coronal mass ejection is made up of balls of gas ejected from the sun’s outer atmosphere, consisting of charged particles and magnetic field. The fastest CME’s travel up to 93 million miles a day, or millions of miles per hour. A solar flare is a burst of x-rays and energy, typically smaller and shorter-lasting than a CME, and rather than being launched out into space, it is caused by material accelerated back into the sun.


This latest sunspot is producing lots of flares — really, really, big ones — but hardly any coronal mass ejections. (Though it did produce one single CME before it rotated into our field of view.)

“I can’t remember ever seeing a sunspot producing so many solar flares and so few CME’s,” said Michael Hesse, director of NASA Goddard’s Heliophysics Science Division, the team that stares at the sun 24 hours a day. “It wants to get rid of this energy, but we don’t understand why it does it through a flare and not a CME.”

But it’s produced 10 major solar flares, Hesse said. Six of these were rated X-class, which is equivalent to 100,000 times the amount of energy produced by humans in one year. Also, a billion Hiroshima-sized nuclear weapons.

A view the full-sun observed by SDO/HMI from Oct. 16-22, 2014

About 20 percent of all of the X-class flares produced so far in this 11-year solar cycle have come from this sunspot, said Dean Pesnell, a project scientist with NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory, which takes about 100,000 pictures of the sun every day.

When a solar flare erupts, it lights up the side of the Earth that’s facing the flare, and heats up the Earth’s upper atmosphere, or ionosphere, which can temporarily change its properties. Solar flares pose less danger than CME’s, but they can affect short-wave radio communication used by pilots and ships, since the radio waves are bounced off the upper atmosphere.

On the NewsHour Oct 30, Miles O’Brien reports on the lava flowing from the volcano on Mount Kilauea in Hawaii and the Jupiter-sized sunspot, which just rotated out of view.

Sunspots, first seen through a telescope by Galileo, are classified by how complex they are. Similar to a mole, a clean, round sunspot is of less interest to sun watchers.

“Imagine the doctor says you’ve got a nice little round mole,” Young said. “But when it starts to break up into pieces and change color and get jagged and complicated, that’s when you start to become concerned.”

Likewise, a more complicated structure means a sunspot contains more potential energy. And as this sunspot goes, it’s a funky one, large and complex, slightly surpassing in size the two spots that existed in fall 2003.

That was a time of extreme solar activity, known as the Halloween Storms. And those 2003 spots produced the biggest flares we’ve seen in modern times, Young said.

But this spot has its own mystery, and Hesse expects it to feature prominently at upcoming science conferences.

“The fact that this sunspot has been nicely in front of the sun where we can watch it gives us an unprecedented opportunity to study this question: How can we have flares and no CMEs,” Hesse said. “We don’t know that at all. We can look at the sunspot and see that there’s energy stored in it. We can see the complexity and know if it’s more likely to produce eruptions. But we don’t know when the eruptions will occur, and we don’t know what they will look like. And we have no clue as to whether it will produce a flare or a CME. We simply don’t understand this.”

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