A powerful solar storm has been unleashed from the Sun and is headed towards Earth, astronomers warn. Early this morning, two solar flares have been released — the second was the most powerful in more than a decade.
A strong geomagnetic storm watch is in effect as scientists wait to see if a coronal mass ejection (CME) is winging toward Earth. A strong solar flare, often associated with CMEs, was detected today (Sept. 6) at 8:02 a.m. ET, along with a weaker one. That solar flare has the potential to degrade high-frequency radio communications and some low-frequency navigation systems, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)’s Space Weather Prediction Center. A CME could cause additional impacts, including disrupting satellite communications.
Fortunately, this outburst of solar activity isn’t anything that the weather satellites tracking Hurricane Irma’s path through the Caribbean can’t handle, said Terry Onsager, a physicist at the NOAA Space Weather Prediction Center.
“The satellites are designed very specifically to take into account these kinds of events,” Onsager told Live Science. And while some older satellites may struggle when hit with charged particles and strong magnetic fields from the sun, Onsager said, the GOES-16 satellite providing images of Irma is brand new. It launched in November 2016.
Radio-wave bursts emanating from a solar flare can scramble satellite communications and navigation systems, Robert Steenburgh, a space scientist at the Space Weather Prediction Center, told Live Science in an email. A coronal mass ejection can cause a geomagnetic storm around Earth, disturbing the layer of charged particles around the planet called the ionosphere, which can disrupt the calculations used in global positioning systems (GPS), Steenburgh added.
The storm could pose an “elevated radiation risk to passengers & crew in high-flying aircraft at far north or south latitudes,” a NOAA warning says, and intermittently impact high-frequency RF communications, which may require some transpolar flight routes to divert to lower geomagnetic latitudes (a shift that would cost the airlines more).
But currently, says Rutledge, the storm isn’t expected to interfere with flights or any other human activity here on Earth or in space. There’s a slim chance of isolated interference with high-precision GPS readings, but those issues usually only arise with stronger storms, he explains.
Northern U.S. and Canadian residents hoping to catch a glimpse of the aurora will get their best shot on Wednesday night and early Thursday. Recent forecasts suggest the aurora may be visible in parts of Washington, Wyoming, New York, and Maine, but aurora watchers should check the Space Weather Prediction Center’s 30-minute forecasts of the colorful sky phenomenon’s intensity.