X1 solar flare caused 30-minute radio blackout in Pacific and US

NASA says an X1-class solar flare caused a 30-minute radio blackout across the Pacific Ocean and the western United States.

The solar flare emerged from sunspot AR3354 (imaged above) and was the 18th of the current Solar Cycle 25. The sun has hit a 21-year peak in solar activity.

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According to the Australian Space Weather Forecasting Centre, the blackout on July 2 caused a high-frequency fadeout in the western US, East Russia, Hawai‘i, Micronesia and Polynesia. The radio blackout was an R3-scale event, or “strong” as per the NOAA Space Weather Scale.

Solar Cycles have an 11-year period and have been studied since they were first observed in the mid-18th Century. The current cycle began in 2019 continuing until about 2030 – and it promises to be the most violent in decades, with peak solar activity expected in 2025.

There are already indications of increased solar activity with an M8-class (nearly X-class, the strongest subset) solar flare causing a short-wave radio blackout in Africa and the Middle East in September 2022.

Solar flares are classed A, B, C, M or X. Each subsequent letter corresponds to a 10-fold increase in energy output from the previous (e.g., B-class is 10 times more powerful than A-class). A-class solar flares are barely above background radiation emission from the Sun and X-class solar flares are the most powerful.

An X1-class solar flare is the lowest strength in this highest subset. But it does bode ominously for the coming years in which even stronger solar flares are expected.

While Earth’s atmosphere and magnetic field protects us from cosmic rays fired by the Sun, modern technology does pose new challenges for humanity.

Satellites and other space-based technologies are particularly at risk of damage from solar storms. This was highlighted when three-quarters of Elon Musk’s Starlink satellites launched in February 2022 were damaged by the Sun’s rage.

A great deal of technology vital to the day-to-day functioning of modern society – from telecommunications to GPS – relies on orbital technologies. A particularly bad solar maximum could spell disaster.

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Solar flares are extremely difficult to predict – bordering on impossible. The Parker Solar Probe launched by NASA to try and demystify the Sun by getting closer than any other human-made object to our central star may help researchers predict and prepare for the coming peak of solar activity.

In the meantime, we are at the mercy of the violent ball of gas and plasma in the centre of our solar system – which is getting angrier.

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