Tue, 18 June 2024
The Daily Ittefaq

More Northern Lights soon as Sun storms strengthen

Update : 18 May 2024, 11:59

There is good news for anyone who enjoyed the show-stopping aurora borealis last weekend - or missed it: there are almost certainly more on the way.

The huge sunspot cluster that hurled energy and gas towards Earth will rotate back towards us in around two weeks.

Scientists say it will probably still be large and complex enough to generate more explosions that could hit Earth’s magnetic field, creating more Northern Lights.

Since last Saturday, the Sun has continued pumping out increased radiation - a huge solar flare on Tuesday disrupted high-frequency radio communications globally.

And this hyperactive sunspot won’t be the last. The Sun is approaching what is called "solar maximum" - a point during an 11-year cycle when its activity is strongest. 

That happens when the Sun’s magnetic poles flip - a process that creates sunspots that fire out material, generating space weather.

This solar cycle is the 25th since humans started systematically observing sunspots in 1755. It was expected to be quiet, but scientists say it is looking stronger than expected.

The intensity of a cycle is estimated by the number of these sunspots, explains Krista Hammond, a space weather forecaster at the Met Office.

But that doesn't actually tell us how strong the storms will be when they reach Earth, she says. 

The geomagnetic storm last weekend was a one-in-30 year event and the biggest since 2003, says Sean Elvidge, a professor in space environment at the University of Birmingham.

It was caused by at least five coronal mass ejections (CMEs) - eruptions of magnetic fields and solar storms - leaving the Sun in close succession.

They took around 18 hours to reach Earth - where the CMEs interacted with our magnetic field.

This magnetosphere is what shields us from all that immensely powerful radiation - without it, there would be no life on Earth.

The storm turned out to be so powerful it had a G5 alert rating - the highest given by forecasters at the Met Office and the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.  Stories of its impacts on global communications, power grids and GPS have trickled in.

These storms are not just about pretty lights - there is a downside, explains Ian Muirhead, a space systems researcher at University of Manchester:

“We're much more technologically dependent now than we were even in the last major storm in 2003. A lot of our services come from space - we don’t even realise - it’s the glue that holds together a lot of our economy.”

SpaceX owner Elon Musk said on X, formerly known as Twitter, that the storm put his Starlink satellites that provide internet “under a lot of pressure”. A spokesperson for the European Space Agency (ESA) said the Starlinks had voltage spikes.

Satellites we rely on for GPS and navigation also had signal disturbance as the extra radiation pulsed towards Earth, ESA said.

A flight from San Francisco to Paris was re-routed to avoid flying over the Arctic where radiation was stronger, explains Dr Elvidge.

Farmers who use tractors with high-precision GPS reported being affected, and manufacturer John Deere warned users about outages.

And a satellite operated by UK company Sen that films Earth in high definition was put in an "idle" state for four days, meaning it missed taking images of events like the wildfires in Canada, the company said.


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