Solar flare, like SpaceX satellite crash, disrupts communications

A solar flare erupted from an outbound sunspot on September 16, releasing a pulse of X-rays and extreme UV radiation that caused shortwave radio blackouts in Africa and the Middle East. Frequencies below 25 MHz were affected up to an hour after the eruption.

The strength of solar flares is measured much like the Richter scale that measures earthquakes. Solar flares are classified as A, B, C, M or X where each successive letter corresponds to a 10-fold increase in energy output. Class A solar flares are barely above background radiation emissions from the sun. reports that the September 16 solar flare, exploding from sunspot AR3098, was an M8 class, meaning it was almost an X flare, the strongest.

According to the UK Met Office Space Weather division, the radio failure was a “moderate” category R2 event (R1 is minor, R5 is extreme).

A map showing extinguished radio frequencies and their geographic location after the September 16, 2022 solar flare. Credit: National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Space weather experts believe the solar flare could be accompanied by a coronal mass ejection (CME) from the solar coronasphere (a million-degree shell of plasma that extends millions of miles from the surface of the sun). According to the Met and other space weather forecasters, the CME could cause a G1 (minor) level geomagnetic instability over the next few days, resulting in small power grid fluctuations and minor impact to satellite operations.

But, as we become increasingly dependent on technology and satellites that are less shielded from solar activity, such events could spell danger.

This was highlighted on February 4 when 38 of SpaceX’s “Starlink” satellites began falling from the sky due to a “minor” G1 class geomagnetic storm. SpaceX’s Starlink is a satellite internet constellation aiming to provide internet access to 40 countries and global mobile phone service after 2023.

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An M1-class solar flare triggered a CME and a geomagnetic storm. An article published in the Space weather newspaper explains how a seemingly “minor” storm could cause so much damage.

“Although it was only ‘minor’, the storm pumped nearly 1,200 gigawatts of energy into the Earth’s atmosphere,” says lead author Tong Dang, from the University of Science and Technology of China. . “This extra energy heated the Earth’s upper atmosphere and greatly increased the aerodynamic drag of the satellites.”

Of the 49 Starlink satellites crammed into the Falcon 9 rocket launched on February 3, only a quarter survived. The project received a boost last week when SpaceX launched another Falcon 9 rocket with new Starlink satellites.

The satellites will be stationed in a higher orbit in an attempt to mitigate the atmospheric effects that led to the Starlink mess earlier this year.

While solar flares are notoriously difficult (impossible) to predict, scientists warn that powerful flares are going to be more frequent as the sun enters solar cycle 25 and sunspot activity is expected to peak in 2025.

Solar cycles last an average of 11 years and have been tracked since the description of Solar Cycle 1 in 1755.

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The largest solar flare in the last 500 years occurred about 160 years ago.

On September 1, 1859, Richard Carrington, one of England’s foremost solar astronomers, observed sunspots. While sketching what he saw, Carrington saw beads of blinding white light appear above the sunspots.

Drawing of sunspots by Richard Carrington (1826-1875), English astronomer. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Before dawn the next day, skies across the planet were bathed in red, green and purple auroras, including the Caribbean. Telegraph systems were disrupted and their operators electrocuted, setting the telegraph newspapers on fire.

The incident went down in history as the “Carrington Event” and scientists believe the solar flare was around an X45-class flare, making it the strongest in recorded history.

Other more recent events involving X-class solar flares show just how damaging they can be.

In 1972, a solar flare interrupted long-distance telephone communications across the United States. A solar flare in 1989 left six million Canadians without power for nine hours. And in 2000, an X5-class solar flare on July 14 caused some satellites to short circuit and lead to radio blackouts.

As the solar cycle peaks, space weather scientists warn things are getting pretty choppy. In fact, the sun has already been more active than expected this cycle, and several X-class flares have triggered so far this year.

Scientific alert reports that we can expect more geomagnetic storms when the cycle peaks, including moderate and strong storms. Heavy storms would disrupt satellites and navigation systems.

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