If you still have your solar viewing glasses from the eclipse, now is a good time to look up at the sun. You’ll see two big dark areas - these massive sunspots are regions of intense and complicated magnetic fields that can produce solar flares.
These two huge sunspots are currently causing quite a bit of interest. The solar storms they’ve sent toward Earth may affect communications and other technologies like GPS and radio signals. They’re causing amazing displays of the Northern and Southern Lights. The sun goes through 11-year cycles of solar activity. What scientists call a solar maximum is the time in the cycle when the sun is putting out the most energy. The number of sunspots varies over the years, but you’d expect to see more during solar maxima and fewer during solar minima.
Credit for top image: Both sunspots are visible on the sun’s surface, as well as the flare in the solar atmosphere. NASA/GSFC/SDO, CC BY
On September 6, the sun produced two massive X-class flares. This is the category for the strongest of all solar flares. The second and strongest of the two X-class flares on September 6 produced a coronal mass ejection directed at Earth.
Over the next day, the same sunspots continued to spit out more solar flares. It took about an hour for the solar energetic particles they emitted to arrive at Earth. These protons are incredibly fast-moving. They can affect communication systems, typically in the polar regions where they are more likely to enter into the Earth’s atmosphere. As with all increases of radiation in space, they can also affect satellite systems and the health of astronauts.
Early in the morning hours of September 7 that first coronal mass ejection that erupted from the sun three days earlier arrived at Earth. This was the biggest since 2008. All this solar activity has already caused a couple of radiation storms in Earth’s high latitude regions that blacked out radio communication at certain frequencies. With the collision of the coronal mass ejection from this X-class flare with Earth come other impacts for the near-Earth space environment.
Geomagnetic storms, like the one currently in progress, are known to wreak havoc on a range of satellite and ground-based communication technologies, as well as power grids, GPS/GNSS, and orbit predictions of satellites and space debris. There has likely been a loss of global navigation system satellite communications in some areas. It is also very likely to produce dazzling aurora activity as far south as the northern U.S. and Europe in the Northern Hemisphere, and as far north as southern Australia and New Zealand in the Southern Hemisphere.