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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, June 24, 2001

Makakilo observatory tunes in to the sun

By Karen Blakeman
Advertiser Staff Writer

High on a dry and wildfire-blackened ridge above Makakilo, in an outpost once used by the Army as a launch site for missiles, Air Force Master Sgt. Shelia Dollison sat in a bunker-style room filled with dials, screens, gauges and buttons.

Electrical engineer Eugene Kraus points out other antenna arrays atop the Palehua Solar Observatory in the hills above Makakilo. The observatory is one one of six such Air Force solar listening posts around the world.

Cory Lum • The Honolulu Advertiser

Her mission was to monitor the sun, though the name of her workplace on the southern tip of the Wai'anae Mountain range — Palehua Solar Observatory — was misleading. Dollison and the five other solar analysts at Palehua don't observe the sun. They listen.

"Uh huh," Dollison mumbled to herself Friday afternoon. She nodded as she checked the gauges and screens that record radio waves emitted from the sun.

"Here it comes," said Eugene Kraus, a seasoned electrical engineer passing some down time in Dollison's operations room.

Kraus, along with a crew of five Air Force technicians, maintains, rebuilds and sometimes designs from scratch the solar radio equipment Dollison and the others use. The equipment is unique and aging. Creativity while in pursuit of parts is a requirement for those who work with Kraus. One piece of sensitive, high-tech equipment in the array of antennas and dishes outside Dollison's building is counterbalanced by a couple of 55 gallon drums, painted white and suspended 20 feet above the ground.

The team's handiwork is displayed around the world.

Palehua is one of six Air Force observatories that monitor solar flares, noise storms and other releases of energy from the sun. Dollison came on shift at sunrise. Her co-worker would sign off at sunset. With observatories in Australia, Italy, Puerto Rico, Massachusetts and New Mexico, the Air Force analysts never let the sun slip from view. The stakes are too high.

A klaxon wailed three times behind Dollison. She moved quickly from one grouping of screens and gauges to another, recording data and preparing to transmit her first information to the Air Force Weather Agency in Colorado.

"We have a solar event," said Maj. Shawn Filby, Dollison's boss.

Because she hears though the radio monitoring equipment and cannot see the sun, Dollison carries a mental picture of solar events in her head: She sees bubbles of gas rising through a thick, boiling soup, and knows that some of those bubbles could splatter across the solar system toward Earth. She works quickly: Some of the agencies that rely on her services — military and civilian, concerned with space, weather, power and communications in countries throughout the world — will have only moments to react.

Each time she successfully transmitted a message, the computer responded, playing a few bars of the '70s song "Smoke on the Water."

Solar events are bursts of energy rising from sunspots, Filby said. The amount of energy expelled varies greatly, ebbing and surging over 11 year-cycles, growing in strength and frequency as the spots migrate from the poles toward the center of the sun.

Sometimes the events are "noise storms," Filby said, low energy but long-lasting disturbances. More often they are solar flares, fiery geysers that arc from the surface of the sun and fling radio waves and charged particles into space. Sometimes the solar soup is flung directly toward Earth and at the increasingly large array of equipment in orbit.

The most common display of solar energy in contact with the Earth is the Aurora Borealis, caused by charged particles hitting the Earth's magnetic field and flickering across the Northern skies like a massive light show, beautiful and harmless. But the effects of solar events aren't always so benign.

Particles emitted from sun, appearing in space like a minor snowstorm, can trick satellites into thinking they have aligned themselves against the wrong pattern of stars. The deceived satellite realigns itself, and broadcasts Earthling communications to distant galaxies.

X-rays, deadly in large doses to humans who have ventured beyond Earth's protective atmosphere, sometimes find their way into the exploding solar soup, causing astronauts to scurry behind protective surfaces of their crafts and pilots of high-flying U-2 spy planes to dart to less rarefied altitudes. The danger doesn't end there.

Air Force cold warriors and their more modern replacements have found their hearts migrating toward their throats during peak periods of solar activity, as they stared wide-eyed at computer screens falsely showing nuclear missiles cresting the northern horizon, en route to someone's home town. Disaster is evaded through the use of redundant systems, not all of them fooled by solar trickery.

Solar activity in the 11-year cycle peaked within the past year, and appears to have passed with no major losses to residents of Earth.

Life was a bit more dangerous, Filby said, even at the peak of the last cycle.

In 1989, a huge solar flare rose from spots near the center of the sun, shooting radiation and charged particles directly at the Earth. Some hit the magnetic field and were discharged as Northern Lights. Other particles sneaked around to the dark side of the planet and slipped through a weak spot in the magnetic field. Once inside, they headed straight toward what, from space, must have looked like a series of antennae — a giant solar energy lightning rod.

It was the power grid from a large section of Canada and the northern states.