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Last Updated: Thursday, 17 April, 2003, 11:54 GMT 12:54 UK
University completes military mission
There are three of them in space right now recording pictures of the sun's plasma storms.
The camera records pictures of the sun's plasma storms.
Scientists at the University of Birmingham have captured the first images of a form of violent space storm which could have a devastating effect on the earth.

The dramatic images were caught on a specialist space camera developed and built by experts from the university's astrophysics team.

The Solar Mass Ejection Imager (SMEI) is part of a $1.5m US Air Force contract to build specialist equipment for the space mission, Coriolis which aims to discover more about huge plasma clouds of hot gas that are emitted from the sun.

When the plasma clouds collide with earth, the most common problem is major disruption to radio communications systems, and in extreme cases, can cause the total loss of satellites.

'Astronomical phenomena'

They can also induce huge currents in trans-continental power lines, which, in September 1989, caused the whole of Quebec to lose its entire power for a day.

The Solar Mass Ejection Imager, operated from a US air base in Albuquerque, New Mexico, provides early detection, monitoring and images of the powerful masses of gases.

It has captured images of the huge plasma clouds for the first time as they travel through interplanetary space.

Professor George Simnett, the university's head of the Space Research Group and Coriolis project leader at explains: "Perhaps the most interesting element of this project for astronomers across the world is that, as a bi-product, SMEI will give us an insight into the variable astronomical phenomena, like supernovae, flaring up anywhere in the sky.

"Another interesting feature is the ability to detect extra solar planets."

The Coriolis satellite passes over Birmingham twice daily, and on a clear night it is possible to see it travelling from south to north at dusk and from north to south at dawn.

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