A huge solar storm is heading for Earth, and it’s likely to hit tomorrow.
The stream of charged particles could knockout satellites, disrupt power supplies and spark stunning displays of the Northern Lights.
Solar storms are created by a solar flare – a large explosion in the sun’s atmosphere – which generated charged particles last week.
‘A minor geomagnetic storm watch is now in effect for the 14 and 15 March, 2018. Aurora may be visible at high latitudes,’ the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) wrote in a statement.
This may include parts of Scotland and northern England, as well as the ‘northern tier’ of the US including parts of Michigan and Maine.
The particles, which came from the sun after solar flares took place on March 6 and 7, could cause ‘weak power grid fluctuations’ and a ‘minor impact on satellite operations,’ according to the NOAA.
Nasa said the first of the two flares – classified in the potent X class and facing directly at the Earth – was the biggest this year.
It was one of the largest of this cycle known as the solar minimum, which began in early 2007.
Geomagnetic storms are ranked on a severity scale, with G at the bottom, R in the middle and S at the top.
The charged particles, which came from the sun after solar flares took place on March 6 (pictured) and 7, could knockout satellites, disrupt power supplies and spark stunning displays of the Northern Lights
A solar storm is forecast to hit Earth today after the sun unleashed a powerful solar flare on Sunday night. Nasa’s Solar Dynamics Observatory Satellite captured this image of the sun releasing a solar flare (right) earlier this week
WHAT ARE SOLAR STORMS AND ARE THEY DANGEROUS?
Solar storms, or solar activity, can be divided into four main components that can have impacts on Earth:
- Solar flares: A large explosion in the sun’s atmosphere. These flares are made of photons that travel out directly from the flare site. Solar flares impact Earth only when they occur on the side of the sun facing Earth.
- Coronal Mass Ejections (CME’s): Large clouds of plasma and magnetic field that erupt from the sun. These clouds can erupt in any direction, and then continue on in that direction, plowing through solar wind. These clouds only cause impacts to Earth when they’re aimed at Earth.
- High-speed solar wind streams: These come from coronal holes on the sun, which form anywhere on the sun and usually only when they are closer to the solar equator do the winds impact Earth.
- Solar energetic particles: High-energy charged particles thought to be released primarily by shocks formed at the front of coronal mass ejections and solar flares. When a CME cloud plows through solar wind, solar energetic particles can be produced and because they are charged, they follow the magnetic field lines between the Sun and Earth. Only charged particles that follow magnetic field lines that intersect Earth will have an impact.
While these may seem dangerous, astronauts are not in immediate danger of these phenomena because of the relatively low orbit of manned missions.
However, they do have to be concerned about cumulative exposure during space walks.
This photo shows the sun’s coronal holes in an x-ray image. The outer solar atmosphere, the corona, is structured by strong magnetic fields, which when closed can cause the atmosphere to suddenly and violently release bubbles or tongues of gas and magnetic fields called coronal mass ejections
The damage caused by solar storms
Solar flares can damage satellites and have an enormous financial cost.
The charged particles can also threaten airlines by disturbing Earth’s magnetic field.
Very large flares can even create currents within electricity grids and knock out energy supplies.
When Coronal Mass Ejections strike Earth they cause geomagnetic storms and enhanced aurora.
They can disrupt radio waves, GPS coordinates and overload electrical systems.
A large influx of energy could flow into high voltage power grids and permanently damage transformers.
This could shut off businesses and homes around the world.
Source: NASA – Solar Storm and Space Weather
The US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration says that the forecast suggests the solar storm will be a G-1 or ‘minor’ storm.
This could become a G-2 ‘moderate storm’ depending on how the charged particles hit Earth.
The event coincides with the formation of ‘equinox cracks’ in the sun, which form around the equinoxes on March 20 and September 23.
On these dates the Earth and sun line up so that day and night are of roughly equal length.
But the equinoxes also cause cracks to open up in the magnetic field which stay open for hours and fire our charged solar particles in the form of solar storms.
The US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration says that the forecast suggests the solar storm will be a G-1 or ‘minor’ storm. Pictured is the aurora forecast at 9:00pm GMT (5:00pm ET) tomorrow
Nasa and the NOAA keep a track of solar events using an array of telescopes and probes which help generate geomagnetic weather forecasts.
Researchers also study the sun to learn more about its structure as well as obtain data to make predictions about different types of solar flares.
These include solar flares and Coronal Mass Ejections, which are large clouds of plasma and magnetic field that erupt from the sun.
Solar flares and particles ejected via coronal mass ejections are associated with dark spots on the sun’s surface.
These are areas of intense magnetic activity, and when the magnetic fields in a sunspot cross each other, it can result in an energy explosion, known as a solar flare, which sends radiation into space.
Solar flares only impact Earth when they occur on the side of the sun facing the Earth.
Sometimes, these explosions can send out coronal mass ejections – large clouds of plasma and magnetic field that erupt from the sun.
The charged, magnetic particles can interfere with machinery in Earth’s orbit as well as at the planet’s surface, such as GPS systems and radio signals.
The event coincides with the formation of ‘equinox cracks’ in the sun, which form around the equinoxes on March 20 and September 23. On these dates the Earth and sun line up so that day and night are of equal length. Pictured is an equinox crack that formed in March 2012
Forecasters monitor these events, and when a storm looks likely to have a significant impact, engineers can shut down certain systems on satellites, or prepare for impacts on the power grid.
The sun has an 11-year cycle of sunspot activity, with the last maximum having taken place in April 2014.
This summer, Nasa is set to launch a spacecraft called Parker Solar Probe, which will travel closer to the sun than any other previous mission.
It will fly by Venus and travel into the corona – the sun’s upper atmosphere, with the aim of learning more about the particles that are ejected by the sun.