New method aims to see extreme space weather before it reaches Earth

14 Aug 2020

Image: © satori/

A newly developed way to see fast coronal mass ejections on the sun could help us predict when extreme space weather is heading for Earth.

Humanity recently got its closest ever glimpse of the sun, and now an international team of scientists has found a new way to study activity on our parent star.

Writing in the Astrophysical Journal, the team led by researchers from Skoltech in Russia described this method of studying fast coronal mass ejections – powerful ejections of magnetised matter from the sun’s outer atmosphere.

These ejections can range in speeds between 100 and 3,500km per second, allowing gigantic solar plasma clouds and accompanying shock waves to reach Earth in less than a day. These extreme space weather events can cause severe geomagnetic storms that can pose hazards to astronauts in orbit and infrastructure in space and on Earth.

One of the strongest space weather events occurred in 1859 when a geomagnetic storm collapsed the telegraph system in North America and Europe. If such an event occurs today, we could find ourselves without electricity, television, internet or radio communications.

The new method was developed from the previous work of Dr Alexander Ruzmaikin and Dr Joan Feynman and has shown that the strongest and most intense geomagnetic storms are driven by fast coronal mass ejections interacting in the interplanetary space with another coronal mass ejection.

‘We wish everyone good weather in space’

These interactions occur particularly when ejections launch in sequence one after the other from the same active region. This type of ejection can be characterised using the concept of clusters that generate an enhanced particle acceleration compared to the isolated plasma cloud.

“Understanding the characteristics of extreme solar eruptions and extreme space weather events can help us better understand the dynamics and variability of the sun as well as the physical mechanisms behind these events,” said the study’s first author, Dr Jenny Marcela Rodríguez Gómez.

As we are just at the beginning of a new 11-year cycle of solar activity, predictions suggest that we shouldn’t be seeing extreme space weather events, but this doesn’t mean they won’t happen.

According to the study’s co-author, Tatiana Podladchikova: “Our modern technological society needs to take this seriously, study extreme space weather events, and also understand all the subtleties of the interactions between the sun and the Earth. And whatever storms may rage, we wish everyone good weather in space.”

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic