News

Solar Storm Strikes Earth’s Magnetic Field Without Major Disruptions

This NASA image shows a solar flare erupting on the Sun's northeastern hemisphere, January 22, 2012.
This NASA image shows a solar flare erupting on the Sun's northeastern hemisphere, January 22, 2012.
Jessica Berman

The Sun’s surface erupted with a series of solar storms this week, sending a barrage of electrically charged particles crashing into the Earth’s magnetic field. So far, the solar blasts have caused only minor disruptions to terrestrial communications systems. But more solar eruptions are on the way over the next few days. The Sun is mid-way through an 11-year solar storm cycle that can have a major impact on human activities here on Earth - and in space.

Solar storms can disrupt electric power grids, triggering black-outs and false alarms at power stations, as well as interfering with high frequency radio communications.  

Alex Young is a solar scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center who studies Sun storm activity. Young scanned an official alert issued Thursday by the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration [NOAA] after the first waves of solar activity reached Earth. Concerns ranged from passengers on high-flying commercial airliners to lunar orbiting satellites.

“Delta [Airlines] is taking alternate routes for seven flights. And let’s see: There was an excessive current seen in a particular satellite. And that means that some of the data was impacted and they had to put the satellite into a safe mode. This was for the GRAIL satellite,” said Young.

The twin GRAIL satellites, operated by the US Space Agency NASA, are orbiting the moon, collecting data on the lunar surface. Delta airlines flies some routes over the North Pole from the US to points in Asia because it is a shorter distance than flying closer to the Equator.  

Had NASA and Delta not made these adjustments, Young said, magnetic energy from the solar storms, which is most intense at the Earth’s poles, could have seriously disrupted radio communication and caused serious damage to sensitive electronic circuits, especially critical to the NASA mission.

“If the precautions weren’t taken, then you’d have the chance of parts of the electronics and parts of the cameras on the spacecraft would be basically destroyed. And something like that, there’s no way you could go up and fix it,” said Young.

Young said the biggest concern during solar flare events is that they often are accompanied by massive eruptions of matter and energy into space called coronal mass ejections, or CMEs.

If the CMEs are ejected toward the Earth, they arrive like a tsunami of electromagnetically charged sub-atomic particles, traveling more than 965 kilometers per second. Young said when that energy wave strikes Earth’s magnetosphere, it disturbs this protective shield.

“And causes it to wiggle, kind of like ringing a bell, and that generates electrical currents in the upper atmosphere. This can excite particles that stream down into the atmosphere in northern latitudes and that creates the aurora borealis.”

Solar scientists can predict with great accuracy when CMEs will occur and whether they will impact Earth.  What they can’t forecast, says Young, is precisely which way the solar winds will be blowing when they interact with the planet’s magnetosphere.

“If it’s oriented northward, which is the same direction as the Earth’s magnetic field, then the interaction is not particularly strong. But if it’s oriented southward, then the two are opposite, the Earth’s [magnetic field] is northward and the CMEs is southward, that actually causes a stronger interaction and releases more energy,” said Young.

Joe Kunches is a space scientist with NOAA's Space Weather Center in Boulder, Colorado. The Sun is in the middle of an 11-year solar storm cycle, and forecasters at NOAA expect more gusts of electrically charged particles visiting Earth within the next week.  

Kunches notes a solar wind event occurred at the end of January.

"So, about six weeks ago, we had somewhat similar circumstances. Now it's here again. I think we're going to get used to seeing similar pulses come off the Sun over the next few years, and they may be as often as one every couple of weeks, one a month, something like that," he said.

Solar storm forecasters also say 2013 could see stronger solar wind activity before the storm cycle winds down.

This forum has been closed.
Comments
     
There are no comments in this forum. Be first and add one

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Olympics Construction Scars Sacred Korean Mountaini
X
July 02, 2015 4:10 AM
Environmentalists in South Korea are protesting a Winter Olympics construction project to build a ski slope through a 500-year-old protected forest. Brian Padden reports that although there is strong national support for hosting the 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Olympics, there are growing public concerns over the costs and possible ecological damage at the revered mountain.
Video

Video Olympics Construction Scars Sacred Korean Mountain

Environmentalists in South Korea are protesting a Winter Olympics construction project to build a ski slope through a 500-year-old protected forest. Brian Padden reports that although there is strong national support for hosting the 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Olympics, there are growing public concerns over the costs and possible ecological damage at the revered mountain.
Video

Video Xenophobia Victims in South Africa Flee Violence, Then Return

Many Malawians fled South Africa early this year after xenophobic attacks on African immigrants. But many quickly found life was no better at home and have returned to South Africa – often illegally and without jobs, and facing the tough task of having to start over. Lameck Masina and Anita Powell file from Johannesburg.
Video

Video Family of American Marine Calls for Release From Iranian Prison

As the crowd of journalists covering the Iran talks swells, so too do the opportunities for media coverage.  Hoping to catch the attention of high-level diplomats, the family of American-Iranian marine Amir Hekmati is in Vienna, pleading for his release from an Iranian prison after nearly 4 years.  VOA’s Heather Murdock reports from Vienna.
Video

Video UK Holds Terror Drill as MPs Mull Tunisia Response

After pledging a tough response to last Friday’s terror attack in Tunisia, which came just days before the 10th anniversary of the bomb attacks on London’s transport network, British security services are shifting their focus to overseas counter-terror operations. VOA's Henry Ridgwell has more.
Video

Video Obama on Cuba: This is What Change Looks Like

President Barack Obama says the United States will soon reopen its embassy in Cuba for the first time since 1961, ending a half-century of isolation. VOA White House correspondent Luis Ramirez reports.
Video

Video Hate Groups Spread Influence Via Internet

Hate groups of various kinds are using the Internet for propaganda and recruitment, and a Jewish human rights organization that monitors these groups, the Simon Wiesenthal Center, says their influence is growing. The messages are different, but the calls to hatred or violence are similar. VOA's Mike O’Sullivan reports.
Video

Video US Silica Sand Mining Surge Worries Illinois Residents, Businesses

Increased domestic U.S. oil and gas production, thanks to advances known as “fracking,” has created a boom for other industries supporting that extraction. Demand for silica sand, used in fracking, could triple over the next five years. In the Midwest state of Illinois, people living near the mines are worried about how increased silica sand mining will affect their businesses and their health. VOA’s Kane Farabaugh has more in this first of a series of reports.
Video

Video Blind Somali Journalist Defies Odds in Mogadishu

Despite improving security in the last few years, Somalia remains one of the most dangerous countries to be a journalist – even more so for someone who cannot see. Abdulaziz Billow has the story of journalist Abdifatah Hassan Kalgacal, who has been reporting from the Somali capital for the last decade despite being blind.
Video

Video Texas Defies Same-Sex Marriage Ruling

Texas state officials have criticized the US Supreme Court decision giving same-sex couples the right to marry nationwide. The attorney general of Texas says last week's decision did not overrule constitutional "rights of religious liberty," and therefore officials performing wedding services can refuse to perform them for same-sex couples if it is against their religious beliefs. Zlatica Hoke reports on the controversy.
Video

Video Rabbi Hits Road to Heal Jewish-Muslim Relations in France

France is on high alert after last week's terrorist attack near the city Lyon, just six months after deadly Paris shootings. The attack have added new tensions to relations between French Jews and Muslims. France’s Jewish and Muslim communities also share a common heritage, though, and as far as one French rabbi is concerned, they are destined to be friends. From the Paris suburb of La Courneuve, Lisa Bryant reports about Rabbi Michel Serfaty and his friendship bus.
Video

Video Saudi Leaks Expose ‘Checkbook Diplomacy’ In Battle With Iran

Saudi Arabia’s willingness to wield its oil money on the global diplomatic stage appears to have been laid bare, after the website WikiLeaks published tens of thousands of leaked cables from Riyadh’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. VOA's Henry Ridgwell reports.
Video

Video In Kenya, Police Said to Shoot First, Ask Questions Later

An organization that documents torture and extrajudicial killings says Kenyan police were responsible for 1,252 shooting deaths in five cities, including Nairobi, between 2009 and 2014, representing 67 percent of all gun deaths in the areas reviewed. Gabe Joselow has more from Nairobi.

VOA Blogs