A big solar storm could burn the internet, but at least space weather forecasts would give us a day or two to prepare. Or maybe not, because physicists have just discovered a new type of solar storm that strikes without warning


May 18, 2022

Shutterstock / Color4260

THE PROBLEM occurred on January 30, 2022, although no one knew how bad it would be. If they were, SpaceX would not have launched 49 Starlink satellites into low Earth orbit a few days later.

It began as a giant cloud of magnetized gas called the ejection of a coronal mass thrown in our direction by the sun. That wasn’t a big deal. Of course, solar storms can warm the Earth’s atmosphere, causing it to expand and drag on low-flying satellites, but all measurements suggest only minor consequences. Power grids and satellites may be slightly damaged, and high-latitude sky observers may notice auroras, but nothing serious.

However, shortly after the Starlink satellites launched from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, it became clear that something had happened. When they reached the upper atmosphere of the Earth, the satellites experienced much greater resistance than expected for the magnitude of the storm. In the end, nothing could be done. Controllers watched as 40 of the satellites were dragged down, burning in the atmosphere in demonstration of the capricious power of the sun.

Down here on Earth, we enjoy the benefits of energy and light from the sun. We couldn’t live without him. But we are also exposed to constant shelling by the solar wind, charged particles coming from our star. Most of the time, they are recognized only in color images of auroras.

From time to time, however, the sun emits much more material, threatening Earth’s satellites and infrastructure. They usually come with a solar flare warning a day or two before they reach us. But recent research shows that some storms can occur without warning. …


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