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Earth Hit by Solar Space Storm

January 24th 2012

Science - Solar flare

NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory witnessed an eruption early Monday morning and now astronomers are warning that the biggest geomagnetic storm since 2005 could cause considerable communication disruptions. A solar flare caused by an eruption of sunspot 1402, a region of the sun that has been highly active lately, has created a radiation storm that could effect power grids, satellites and even air travel. This particular eruption produced a M9 class solar flare, almost high enough to be rated as an X-flare, the most powerful of them all.

Solar flares occur when a build up of magnetic energy in the solar atmosphere is released suddenly, emitting radiation across the electromagnetic spectrum. The energy released is as powerful as the impact of an explosion of millions of hydrogen bombs detonating simultaneously. As magnetic energy is released, particles such as electrons, nuclei and protons are accelerated in the solar atmosphere. The first recorded solar flare was observed in 1859.

The flare was observed by NASA as an intense ultraviolet flash and scientists say that aggressive releases of plasma and magnetic fields have been hurtling from the sun towards earth at speeds of around 5 million miles per hour. Scientists say that it is likely that the cloud is headed in Earth’s general direction and warn that the storm could continue until later this week. Airlines have re-routed planes around effected regions as a precautionary measure.  The astronauts aboard the International Space Station are not believed to be in any danger, though they may be advised to shield themselves.

Here on earth the geomagnetic storms are creating strong displays of auroras, or northern or southern lights that can be viewed in Asia, continental Europe and Britain. 

Another sunspot projected a number of M-class flares, and scientists say these are occurring on a regular basis now as the sun’s rotation causes it to slowly turn towards the earth. Solar cycles take an average of about 11 years to go from one period of greatest solar activity to the next.  It has been observed to vary in durations of 9 to 14 years for any given solar cycle.  NASA warns that the next one, expected in 2013 could bring widespread power blackouts.  However, the ability to accurately precict the time and power of occurances is not a perfect science.

Cutting Edge Correspondent Jude Freeman writes from London.
















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