Solar storms could produce a rare aurora, affecting communications on Earth this weekend

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A series of solar flares and coronal mass ejections from the Sun have the potential to create a dazzling aurora that can be seen as far south as Alabama and northern California, but they will also disrupt communications on Earth tonight and over the weekend, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Center. Administration Space Weather Prediction Center.

The center, a division of the National Weather Service, issued a severe geomagnetic storm warning Friday evening. It is the first watch of its kind to be released since January 2005.

As the sun approaches its peak activity in its 11-year cycle, which is known as… Maximum solar powerLater this year, researchers observed extremely intense solar flares exploding from the fiery orb.

Increased solar activity creates the aurora borealis that dance around Earth’s poles, known as the northern lights, or aurora borealis, and the southern lights, or aurora australis. When energetic particles from coronal mass ejections reach Earth’s magnetic field, they interact with gases in the atmosphere to create different colored light in the sky.

The Space Weather Prediction Center has tracked several powerful flares emanating from a large cluster of sunspots on the Sun’s surface since Wednesday. The mass is 16 times the diameter of the Earth.

Scientists have observed at least five coronal mass ejections, or large clouds of ionized gas called plasma and magnetic fields erupting from the Sun’s outer atmosphere, shooting from the Sun toward Earth. These large attacks are expected to arrive as early as midday Friday and continue through Sunday.

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The peak of Earth’s geomagnetic storm activity will be between 2 a.m. and 5 a.m. EDT on Saturday, according to the center’s forecast.

The center referred to this as an “unusual event.”

Sun-driven geomagnetic storms in recent months have caused auroras to appear in places where they can rarely be seen, including as far south as New Mexico, Missouri, North Carolina and California in the United States, southeast England and other parts. From the United Kingdom.

Depending on location, the aurora may not always be visible above, but keep an eye on the horizon, experts say, because it may create a colorful display there, too.

Alex Corman/Star Tribune/Getty Images

The aurora borealis can be seen on the northern horizon in the night sky over Wolf Lake in Cloquet State Forest in Minnesota in September 2019.

When directed at the ground, these projectiles can cause damage Geomagnetic stormsOr major disturbances in the Earth’s magnetic field.

“Geomagnetic storms can impact infrastructure in near-Earth orbit and on the Earth’s surface, potentially disrupting communications, the electrical power grid, navigation, radio and satellite operations,” according to the Space Weather Prediction Center. “(The Center) has informed the operators of these systems so that they can take preventive measures.”

Solar storms generated by the Sun can also cause power outages and even pose risks to manned space missions.

The center warned that additional solar activity could cause geomagnetic storm conditions To be ongoing over the weekend.

So far, researchers have observed only three severe geomagnetic storms during the current solar cycle, which began in December 2019, according to the center.

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Previously, a G5 storm, or severe geomagnetic storm, occurred on October 23, causing power outages in Sweden and damaging power transformers in South Africa, according to the center.

Every 11 years or so, the Sun goes through periods of low and high solar activity, which is related to the amount of sunspots on its surface. The Sun’s powerful, ever-changing magnetic fields drive these dark regions, some of which can be as large as Earth or larger.

Over the course of the solar cycle, the Sun will move from a quiet period to an intense and active period. During peak activity, called solar maximum, the Sun’s magnetic poles flip. After that, the Sun will become quiet again during the solar minimum.

The solar maximum is expected to reach its peak during mid- to late 2024, but the Sun will remain active for a few years after that.

Teams at the Space Weather Prediction Center use data from ground- and space-based observatories, magnetic maps of the Sun’s surface, and ultraviolet observations of the Sun’s outer atmosphere to determine when the Sun is most likely to send out solar flares, coronal mass ejections, and other space weather that could impact Earth. .

Solar flares can affect communications and GPS almost instantly, because they disrupt the Earth’s ionosphere, or part of the upper atmosphere.

Energetic particles released by the Sun can also disrupt electronics on spacecraft and affect astronauts without proper protection within 20 minutes to several hours.

Material quickly sent away from the Sun during coronal mass ejections can reach Earth 30 to 72 hours later, causing geomagnetic storms that affect satellites and generate electrical currents in the upper atmosphere that travel through the Earth and can be It has an effect on electrical energy. networks.

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The storms also affect the flight patterns of commercial airlines, which are required to turn away from the Earth’s poles during geomagnetic storms due to loss of communication or navigation capabilities.

Severe storms have occurred before, such as the one that destroyed Quebec’s power grid in 1989 and the Carrington Event of 1859. The latter remains the most powerful geomagnetic storm ever recorded, causing telegraph stations to ignite and catch fire.

If such an event occurred today, it could cause trillions of dollars in damage and knock down some power grids for an extended period of time.

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