With help from US Air Force personnel, physicist Graham Steward monitors the sun’s activity on remote North West Cape, WA.

Story By Cormac Hanrahan

At the peak of its powers the sun never set on the British Empire, but today it is a more accurate, yet perhaps less celebrated fact to note that the sun never sets on US scientific installations, scattered as they are to far-flung corners of the globe, including outback Australia.
Jointly managed by the Federal Government and the US Air Force, the Learmonth Solar Observatory, 37 kilometres south of Exmouth, WA, is part of a network of five similar facilities around the world, which constantly monitor the sun’s every moment.
Outside, the sun arcs hot and high overhead as Graham Steward, acting principal physicist at Learmonth, props himself on the edge of a desk inside a small air-conditioned room crammed with bulky, humming, expensive-looking equipment, and puts things in perspective.
“One hundred and nine earths fit across the diameter of the sun, it weighs about 330,000 earths with a volume of about 1.3 million earths. So when you get an explosion on the sun, the earth would be completely devoured if it were near, but luckily we’re about 150 million kilometres away,” he says.
The equivalent of terrestrial weathermen for space, staff at the observatory consist of government employees such as Graham and US Air Force personnel, who have short haircuts and camouflage uniforms. Together they monitor space weather and keep an eye out for sun spots and flares.
“A flare is basically a forced release of energy, an explosion on the sun, and if it’s really energetic it can eject a cloud of plasma, and if the earth happens to be in the path of that cloud it can cause a major storm with our magnetic field,” Graham says. The problem with magnetic storms is that they can play havoc with satellites, power grids, oil pipelines and high frequency (HF) communications of the type often relied upon in the bush.
“Before such facilities existed, organisations like the [Royal] Flying Doctor [Service], who use HF radio to communicate over long distances, relied on a frustrating process of trial and error across multiple channels until they got one that worked. Now they can use information from the forecast centres to choose the best frequency based on analysis of solar activity,” Graham says.

This story excerpt is from Issue #82

Outback Magazine: Apr/May 2012