Earth's satellites, power grids and planes may have more time to prepare against the threat of solar flares

Earth's satellites, power grids and planes may have more time to prepare against the threat of solar flares
The prominence shot off the left side of the sun in association with an M1 class flare that was not directed at Earth on 16 April 2016BCCL
  • Solar flares contain solar particles, which pose a threat to astronauts, satellites, power grids and aeroplanes.
  • Moreover, they’re very hard to predict ahead of time.
  • Scientists believe they know where these particles originate, which may help astronomers better forecast solar flares that pose a threat to Earth and its technology.
Every now and then, the Sun spits out a solar flare that leaves the Earth’s critical infrastructure on edge. One example is the ‘Carrington Event’ of 1859 in which a large solar storm caused telegraphic systems across Europe and America to fail. Another is the 1989 massive power blackout in Quebec.

Knowing when a solar flare is going to occur could help Earth better prepare against solar storms and reduce the risk to human lives. In what may be a milestone in this research, a new study by astronomers at University College London (UCL) and George Mason University could at least tell others where to look.

Earth's satellites, power grids and planes may have more time to prepare against the threat of solar flares
A medium-sized (M2) solar flare and a coronal mass ejection (CME) erupted from the same, large active region of the sun on 14 July 2017. The flare lasted almost two hours, quite a long duration, according to NASA.NASA


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So what are we talking about?
Even though the Sun is 149.6 million kilometers away, potentially hazardous solar particles within these flares have been known to knock out satellites and cause city-wide blackouts. They also pose a radiation risk to astronauts and threaten the navigation capabilities of aeroplanes and ships.

Tracking down or predicting when these solar flares will occur has proven to be an elusive endeavour so far. According to the new study, the source is not slow solar wind but plasma located low in the Sun’s outermost layer, the corona. However, the solar particles are closer to the middle region of the Sun’s atmosphere — the chromosphere — than the outer edges of the Sun.

Earth's satellites, power grids and planes may have more time to prepare against the threat of solar flares
Layers of the Sun (innermost to outermost going left to right)NASA

“Our evidence supports theories that these highly charged particles originate from plasma that has been held down low in the Sun's atmosphere by strong magnetic fields,” said co-author of the study published in Science Advances, Stephanie Yardley in a statement. “These energetic particles, once released, are then accelerated by eruptions that travel at a speed of a few thousand kilometers a second.”
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The threat of solar flares
A solar cycle is the amount of time it takes for the Sun’s magnetic poles to flip. During the process, the star transitions between an active to a quiet phase.

Even though we know the length of one cycle is around 11 years, it’s still impossible to see when solar is going to occur until it's after the fact. The potentially hazardous solar particles within these solar flares can reach Earth within a matter of minutes. And, in all likelihood, the event will last a couple of days.

The comparable data at the disposal of scientists is limited since records only go as far back as five cycles. An analysis led by the University of Warwick was one of the first to study the past fourteen cycles for the first time and found that ‘severe’ magnetic storms have occurred 42 times — that’s one every 25 years.
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According to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration ( NASA), the biggest solar flare on record is from 2 April 2001. The explosion from the Sun hurled a coronal mass ejection into space at a whopping speed of roughly 7.2 million kilometres per hour. Luckily, the flare was not directed at Earth.

Earth's satellites, power grids and planes may have more time to prepare against the threat of solar flares
On Monday, 2 April 2001, the sun unleashed the biggest solar flare ever recorded, as observed by the Solar and Heliospheric Observatory (SOHO) satellite.NASA

The new solar cycle will be their testing ground
The scientists were able to track down these energised particles because they had the same ‘fingerprint’ as plasma from deep within the Sun’s corona.

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In order to determine whether their observations held true, these astronomers used events from the last solar cycle. However, in September last year, the star at the centre of our universe embarked on a fresh 11-year solar cycle.

Now, these scientists will use their observations to try and predict when the next solar flare may occur in the new solar cycle. “We are now starting a new solar cycle, and once it gets going we will use the same techniques to see if our results are generally true, or if these events are somehow unusual,” said lead author David Brooks in a statement.

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