- plasma eruptions from the sun hurtle towards Earth and probably cause a geomagnetic storm.
- That could bring Northern Lights south to New York, Chicago and Portland on Wednesday night.
- Solar storms can be disruptive to radio, GPS, satellites, and other technology.
Eruptions of electrically charged plasma from the sun could push the northern lights as far as New York, Chicago and Portland, Oregon on Wednesday night.
Solar flares are called coronal mass ejections (CMEs). They get their name from their origins in the corona, the outer layer of the sun’s atmosphere, and a number of them are traveling toward Earth right now. They’re all expected to arrive around 1 a.m. ET on Thursday, possibly causing dazzling and very active auroras in southern Pennsylvania, Iowa and Oregon, according to the Space Weather Prediction Centera branch of the National Weather Service.
The aurora appears when Earth’s magnetic field funnels electrically charged solar particles toward the poles, where the particles interact with gases in Earth’s atmosphere. That’s what creates brightly colored ribbons.
When CMEs send streams of those particles toward Earth, that causes a geomagnetic storm, which can produce particularly impressive auroras.
Geomagnetic storms can wreak havoc on power grids and satellites
Solar storms don’t just bring pretty auroras. The flood of solar particles can also interfere with power grids, GPS and radio communications, and even affect the orbits of satellites around Earth. Wednesday’s storm isn’t expected to have much of an impact on technology, but previous solar storms have caused problems.
In 1989, a flood of particles from the sun knocked out the power of Quebec for about nine hours. Two other solar storms cut off emergency radio communications for a total of 11 hours shortly after Hurricane Irma in 2017. A solar storm can even have cut off the SOS transmissions from the Titanic as it sank on April 14, 1912, but that is not known for sure.
Outbursts of solar activity can also endanger astronauts in Earth orbit by interfering with their spacecraft or disrupting communications with mission control.
So studying the source of solar charged particles could help scientists figure out how to protect both astronauts and Earth’s power grid from these unpredictable electrical storms. Two spacecraft currently orbiting the sun are doing just that.
In February 2020, NASA and the European Space Agency launched the solar orbiter to capture data on flares on the sun’s surface. NASA Parker solar probe it is also revolving around the sun. It is designed to measure solar flares as they occur, tracking the flow of material from the sun to Earth in real time.
The information these spacecraft collect could one day help scientists forecast more geomagnetic storms before they happen.
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