Solar storms made headlines earlier this year when Elon Musk’s SpaceX program launched 49 satellites into space.
When an unexpected solar storm hit Earth, 40 of the 49 satellites burned up in the earth’s atmosphere. This cost the company $50 million in losses.
What is a solar storm, exactly, and how does it affect earth’s technology? Most importantly, is it something we need to worry about?
Keep reading as we explore this fascinating topic!
What Is a Solar Storm?
Before we try to define a technical term like “solar flare geomagnetic storm,” let’s make sure we’re all on the same page.
We all know the earth orbits around the sun, but does the sun rotate too?
Yes, but not in the same way a planet rotates. The sun’s core and inner layers rotate at one speed, while the outer layers have a differential rotation with various rotation speeds.
Meanwhile, the sun constantly releases charged particles into space. Scientists call this “solar wind.” At times, localized fluctuations release an unusually powerful burst of particles into space.
If Earth happens to be in the path, the result is a geomagnetic storm — more commonly called a solar storm.
Effects of a Solar Storm Hitting Earth
Most solar storms pass by our planet without us noticing. Those in extreme latitudes may see these solar flares in the form of aurora borealis (Northern lights).
A major solar storm, however, can wreak havoc with earth’s technology. Solar storms can damage navigation and communication satellites, making them inoperable or even changing their orbits.
The SpaceX launch is the latest major incident, but it’s not the only one.
For example, in 1972, a solar flare detonated several US Navy magnetic sea mines in Northern Vietnam. SkyLab was destroyed in 1979 due to above-average solar activity. Then, in 1989, a geomagnetic storm Quebec’s hydroelectric dam to collapse, leaving millions of people without power.
The most powerful solar storm ever recorded, however, was the Carrington Event of 1859.
It produced visible auroras as far south as Cuba and Hawaii and left nitrates in the ice in Greenland. Even more significantly, it set telegraph wires on fire and disrupted communications around the globe.
Should We Be Worried?
We rely on our power grid for everything — to power our homes and electronics as well as our hospitals, banks, airports, and oil refineries. Without it, our society would simply plunge into chaos.
What happens if another major storm like the Carrington Event strikes our planet again? Is this something we need to lose sleep over?
Take a deep breath: Our discussion ends with good news.
Scientists know that another major solar flare will someday impact electrical grids around the world — it’s just a matter of time.
For this reason, power companies and government agencies have spent decades preparing for another Carrington Event. They’ve identified vulnerabilities and have detailed plans to keep them functional and secure.
Solar Storms 101: Class Dismissed
By now you’ve learned that solar storms are a natural phenomenon that occurs often. Although they can cause some disruptions to earth’s technology, they’re nothing we need to be afraid of.
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