Solar flares are complex phenomena. They involve plasma, electromagnetic radiation across all wavelengths, activity in the Sun’s atmosphere layers, and particles travelling at near light speed. Spacecraft like NASA’s Solar and Heliophysics Observatory (SOHO) and the Parker Solar Probe shed new light on the Sun’s solar flares.
But it was a Japanese-led mission called Yohkoh that spotted an unusual solar flare in 1999. This flare displayed a downward flowing motion toward the Sun along with the normal outward flow. What caused it?
A team of researchers think they’ve figured it out.
According to the latest numbers from the ESA’s Space Debris Office (SDO), there are roughly 6,900 artificial satellites in orbit. The situation is going to become exponentially crowded in the coming years, thanks to the many telecommunications, internet, and small satellites that are expected to be launched. This creates all kinds of worries for collision risks and space debris, not to mention environmental concerns.
For this reason, engineers, designers, and satellite manufacturers are looking for ways to redesign their satellites. Enter Max Justice, a cybersecurity expert, former Marine, and “Cyber Farmer” who spent many years working in the space industry. Currently, he is working towards a new type of satellite that is made out of mycelium fibers. This tough, heat-resistant, and environmentally friendly material could trigger a revolution in the booming satellite industry.
Isn’t modern society great? With all this technology surrounding us in all directions. It’s like a cocoon of sweet, fluffy silicon. There are chips in my fitness tracker, my bluetooth headset, mobile phone, car keys and that’s just on my body.
At all times in the Cain household, there dozens of internet devices connected to my wifi router. I’m not sure how we got to the point, but there’s one thing I know for sure, more is better. If I could use two smartphones at the same time, I totally would.
And I’m sure you agree, that without all this technology, life would be a pale shadow of its current glory. Without these devices, we’d have to actually interact with each other. Maybe enjoy the beauty of nature, or something boring like that.
It turns out, that terrible burning orb in the sky, the Sun, is fully willing and capable of bricking our precious technology. It’s done so in the past, and it’s likely to take a swipe at us in the future.
I’m talking about solar storms, of course, tremendous blasts of particles and radiation from the Sun which can interact with the Earth’s magnetosphere and overwhelm anything with a wire.
In fact, we got a sneak preview of this back in 1859, when a massive solar storm engulfed the Earth and ruined our old timey technology. It was known as the Carrington Event.
Follow your imagination back to Thursday, September 1st, 1859. This was squarely in the middle of the Victorian age.
And not the awesome, fictional Steampunk Victorian age where spectacled gentleman and ladies of adventure plied the skies in their steam-powered brass dirigibles.
No, it was the regular crappy Victorian age of cholera and child labor. Technology was making huge leaps and bounds, however, and the first telegraph lines and electrical grids were getting laid down.
Imagine a really primitive version of today’s electrical grid and internet.
On that fateful morning, the British astronomer Richard Carrington turned his solar telescope to the Sun, and was amazed at the huge sunspot complex staring back at him. So impressed that he drew this picture of it.
While he was observing the sunspot, Carrington noticed it flash brightly, right in his telescope, becoming a large kidney-shaped bright white flare.
Carrington realized he was seeing unprecedented activity on the surface of the Sun. Within a minute, the activity died down and faded away.
And then about 5 minutes later. Aurora activity erupted across the entire planet. We’re not talking about those rare Northern Lights enjoyed by the Alaskans, Canadians and Northern Europeans in the audience. We’re talking about everyone, everywhere on Earth. Even in the tropics.
In fact, the brilliant auroras were so bright you could read a book to them.
The beautiful night time auroras was just one effect from the monster solar flare. The other impact was that telegraph lines and electrical grids were overwhelmed by the electricity pushed through their wires. Operators got electrical shocks from their telegraph machines, and the telegraph paper lit on fire.
What happened? The most powerful solar flare ever observed is what happened.
A solar flare occurs because the Sun’s magnetic field lines can get tangled up in the solar atmosphere. In a moment, the magnetic fields reorganize themselves, and a huge wave of particles and radiation is released.
Flares happen in three stages. First, you get the precursor stage, with a blast of soft X-ray radiation. This is followed by the impulsive stage, where protons and electrons are accelerated off the surface of the Sun. And finally, the decay stage, with another burp of X-rays as the flare dies down.
These stages can happen in just a few seconds or drag out over an hour.
Remember those particles hurled off into space? They take several hours or a few days to reach Earth and interact with our planet’s protective magnetosphere, and then we get to see beautiful auroras in the sky.
This geomagnetic storm causes the Earth’s magnetosphere to jiggle around, which drives charges through wires back and forth, burning out circuits, killing satellites, overloading electrical grids.
Back in 1859, this wasn’t a huge deal, when our quaint technology hadn’t progressed beyond the occasional telegraph tower.
Today, our entire civilization depends on wires. There are wires in the hundreds of satellites flying overhead that we depend on for communications and navigation. Our homes and businesses are connected by an enormous electrical grid. Airplanes, cars, smartphones, this camera I’m using.
Everything is electronic, or controlled by electronics.
Think it can’t happen? We got a sneak preview back in March, 1989 when a much smaller geomagnetic storm crashed into the Earth. People as far south as Florida and Cuba could see auroras in the sky, while North America’s entire interconnected electrical grid groaned under the strain.
The Canadian province of Quebec’s electrical grid wasn’t able to handle the load and went entirely offline. For 12 hours, in the freezing Quebec winter, almost the entire province was without power. I’m telling you, that place gets cold, so this was really bad timing.
Satellites went offline, including NASA’s TDRS-1 communication satellite, which suffered 250 separate glitches during the storm.
And on July 23, 2012, a Carrington-class solar superstorm blasted off the Sun, and off into space. Fortunately, it missed the Earth, and we were spared the mayhem.
If a solar storm of that magnitude did strike the Earth, the cleanup might cost $2 trillion, according to a study by the National Academy of Sciences.
It’s been 160 years since the Carrington Event, and according to ice core samples, this was the most powerful solar flare over the last 500 years or so. Solar astronomers estimate solar storms like this happen twice a millennium, which means we’re not likely to experience another one in our lifetimes.
But if we do, it’ll cause worldwide destruction of technology and anyone reliant on it. You might want to have a contingency plan with some topic starters when you can’t access the internet for a few days. Locate nearby interesting nature spots to explore and enjoy while you wait for our technological civilization to be rebuilt.
Have you ever seen an aurora in your lifetime? Give me the details of your experience in the comments.
NASA has spotted an enormous black blotch growing on the surface of the Sun. It looks eerie, but this dark region is nothing to fear, though it does signal potential disruption to satellite communications.
The dark region is called a coronal hole, an area on the surface of the Sun that is cooler and less dense than the surrounding areas. The magnetic fields in these holes are open to space, which allows high density plasma to flow out into space. The lack of plasma in these holes is what makes them appear dark. Coronal holes are the origin of high-speed solar winds, which can cause problems for satellite communications.
The images were captured by the Solar Dynamics Observatory (SDO) on July 11th. Tom Yulsman at Discover’s ImaGeo blog created a gif from several of NASA’s images.
High-speed solar winds are made up of solar particles which are travelling up to three times faster than the solar wind normally does. Though satellites are protected from the solar wind, extremes like this can still cause problems.
Coronal holes may look like a doomsday warning; an enormous black hole on the surface of our otherwise placid looking Sun is strange looking. But these holes are a part of the natural life of the Sun. And anyway, they only appear in extreme ultraviolet and x-ray wavelengths.
The holes tend to appear at the poles, due to the structure of the Sun’s magnetosphere. But when they appear in more equatorial regions of the Sun, they can cause intermittent problems, as the high-speed solar wind they generate is pointed at the Earth as the Sun rotates.
In June 2012, a coronal hole appeared that looked Big Bird from Sesame Street.
The Big Bird hole was the precursor to an extremely powerful solar storm, the most powerful one in 150 years. Daniel Baker, of the University of Colorado’s Laboratory of Atmospheric and Space Physics, said of that storm, “If it had hit, we would still be picking up the pieces.” We were fortunate that it missed us, as these enormous storms have the potential to damage power grids on the surface of the Earth.
It seems unlikely that any solar wind that reaches Earth as a result of this current coronal hole will cause any disruption to us here on Earth. But it’s not out of the question. In 1989 a solar storm struck Earth and knocked out power in the province of Quebec in Canada.
It may be that the only result of this coronal hole, and any geomagnetic storms it creates, are more vivid auroras.
Those are something everyone can appreciate and marvel at. And you don’t need an x-ray satellite to see them.
Dr. Sara Seager, whose research focuses on computer models of exoplanet atmospheres, interiors, and biosignatures. Her favorite projects involve the search for planets like Earth with signs of life
Over the course of April 28–29 a gigantic filament, briefly suspended above the surface* of the Sun, broke off and created an enormous snakelike eruption of plasma that extended millions of miles out into space. The event was both powerful and beautiful, another demonstration of the incredible energy and activity of our home star…and it was all captured on camera by two of our finest Sun-watching spacecraft.
Watch a video of the event below.
Made from data acquired by both NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory (SDO) and the joint ESA/NASA SOHO spacecraft, the video was compiled by astronomer and sungrazing comet specialist Karl Battams. It shows views of the huge filament before and after detaching from the Sun, and gives a sense of the enormous scale of the event.
At one point the plasma eruption spanned a distance over 33 times farther than the Moon is from Earth!
Filaments are long channels of solar material contained by magnetic fields that have risen up from within the Sun. They are relatively cooler than the visible face of the Sun behind them so they appear dark when silhouetted against it; when seen rising from the Sun’s limb they look bright and are called prominences.
When the magnetic field lines break apart, much of the material contained within the filaments gets flung out into space (a.k.a. a CME) while some gets pulled back down into the Sun. These events are fairly common but that doesn’t make them any less spectacular!
Caught on camera by NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory, a prominence blazes hundreds of thousands of miles out from the Sun’s surface (i.e., photosphere) on May 27, 2014. The image above, seen in extreme ultraviolet wavelengths, shows a brief snapshot of the event with the column of solar plasma stretching nearly as far as the distance between Earth and the Moon.
Watch a video of the event below:
The video covers a span of about two hours.
Although it might look fiery in these images, a prominence isn’t flame — it’s powered by rising magnetic fields trapping and carrying the Sun’s superheated material up into the corona. And while this may not have been a unique or unusual event — or even particularly long-lived — it’s still an impressive reminder of the immense scale and energy of our home star!