A coronal mass ejection (CME) that emerged from our usually friendly neighbourhood star last week could cause problems close to home in the coming days.
These energy bursts are associated with solar radiation storms, which spew out charged particles from the Sun – sometimes towards Earth. Moving very quickly, these particles can cover the 150 million kilometres between their origin and our little blue sphere in the time it takes to leisurely walk around your local football field.
These high-energy particles can penetrate the atmosphere if they hit our planet’s magnetic field.
One problem linked with these solar particles visiting Earth is the potential damage they cause.
Luckily, our magnetic field protects against space rays
While humans on the ground are protected by our planet’s magnetic field shielding us from cosmic radiation, an astronaut would do well to avoid coming across solar particles – a big dose of this sun radiation would damage their DNA.
Technology and solar rays don’t mix too well, either. Solar storms have the potential to fry electronic circuitry in spacecraft, and disrupt GPS technology, cause communications blackouts and damage the computer or smartphone you’re using to read this article.
So with predictions of a solar storm hitting Earth this week, what are the chances?
“One of the big challenges is that we don’t know how to forecast,” says Dr Hannah Schunker, a solar and stellar physicist from the University of Newcastle. “We simply don’t know: one that we think will be very weak ends up being quite strong. One that we think will be enormous has very little interaction.
“Solar storms are a huge puzzle.”
Expect more solar storms over the next few years
One thing we do know is that the Sun is getting more active. Most estimates predict it will reach a “solar maximum” at some point in 2025, marking the peak of the Sun’s activity when its magnetic field changes its polarity. That means more solar storms can be expected as we approach this big flip.
“The Sun is now entering its period of maximum solar activity… and when it’s more magnetically active, this is what gives the energy to these sudden explosions on the Sun,” says Schunker.
“So we’ll have more of those explosions. And then if they happen to be directed towards the Earth, then we have a higher chance of it being a problem for us.”
Solar storms do, at least, have some benefits for us. The good news for those in need of a way to entertain the kids these school holidays is that Sun particles dancing across Earth’s magnetic field results in the polar aurorae – the northern and southern lights. So if you’re at the right latitude (in Australia, think: southern Tasmania), you should at least get a cool sky show this week.