Power outage: Could a solar storm switch off the world’s technology?

  • TECH
  • Sunday, 22 May 2022

The Northern Lights, also known as the aurora borealis, at Selfoss in southern Iceland. Auroras are the result of disturbances in the magnetosphere caused by the solar wind, the stream of particles and plasma emanating from the sun. During a solar storm, or disturbance on the sun, high-energy particles and a massive plasma cloud can emanate outwards across the heliosphere towards the planets, potentially massively disrupting infrastructure on and around Earth. — dpa

NEW YORK: Solar storms make for wonderful light shows as auroras zipping through the heavens but they can also bring about a state of emergency.

The phenomenon doesn’t present any danger to the Earth as a planet, but could well harm humans who are increasingly dependent on technology.

During a solar storm, or disturbance on the sun, high-energy particles and a massive plasma cloud can emanate outwards across the heliosphere towards the planets, potentially massively disrupting infrastructure on and around Earth.

Space company SpaceX felt the painful effects of such space weather recently, when a solar storm knocked out 40 of its satellites.

Solar storms mostly occur from giant explosions of plasma known as coronal mass ejections, and solar flares from active regions – and we are likely to see more of them in the coming years. The sun has a roughly 11-year cycle and its activity has been increasing again since 2019, with forecasts suggesting a peak in 2024 to 2026.

The violent particle and radiation bursts during phases of high activity are likely to have increasingly severe consequences on Earth, given our growing reliance on technology.

Solar storms hurl high-energy particles and billions of tons of plasma into space, which can swiftly come rocketing towards the Earth, some 150 million kilometres away.

Although the Earth is protected by its magnetic field and atmosphere, such storms can cause massive damage, wrecking satellites and power grids and causing the collapse of communication and navigation systems.

"It is possible at any time for a very extreme solar storm to occur, and it could have far-reaching consequences," says European Space Agency (ESA)'s space weather mission coordinator in Germany, Melanie Heil.

Space travellers use the site's satellite control centre to monitor solar storms. While Heil says it isn't "super likely" that all of the satellites will break down, some could be affected.

What's needed on Earth is a timely warning, in order to protect the power grids. Turning down capacities in generators and transformers might protect them from damage. However, a major event could be tough to predict. "The latest calculations say we can expect about a 10% probability of an extreme space weather event in the next 10 years," says Heil.

Any warning time is likely to be brief as solar particles shoot through the vastness of the solar system at a speed that is hard to imagine. "If we weren't able to observe something like this, we would be vulnerable at any time," Heil says. Certain observation points already provide data but work is still under way to expand capacities to create more reliable predictions.

Scientists hope that ESA's Vigil probe will allow them a much better look at solar storms. "Because of its location in space, the Vigil mission will be able to take a sharp look at potentially dangerous solar activity," says ESA mission chief Giuseppe Mandorlo. The mission is scheduled to launch in 2027 and, unlike in the past, is able to take a sideways look at the sun and track the storms, says Heil.

ESA was surprised at the damage suffered by billionaire Elon Musk's SpaceX. "It wasn't actually a particularly strong solar storm, which is why no official warning was sent out," says Heil.

The SpaceX satellites were in the wrong place at the wrong time, she says. When it hit, the storm compressed the atmosphere so much that the orbiters were unable to reach their target point 300 kilometres higher up and burned up in the atmosphere.

SpaceX wants to use satellites to set up its Starlink system to provide high-speed Internet connections.

The private space company is doing a "good job" with Starlink, says the US space agency NASA. Both NASA and US weather agency NOAA are currently working with SpaceX to further improve Starlink operations.

NASA is also working to better understand weather events in space, as everyone is wondering how severe the current solar cycle will be.

It is a question with no answer so far. Solar Cycle Prediction Panel (SCPP) suggested its maximum would be pretty muted, similar to the previous cycle, in a 2020 forecast. However, that prediction was countered by a team led by Scott McIntosh of the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) in Boulder, Colorado. His researchers say the maximum is likely to be strong, with many solar storms. – dpa

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