Solar flare blasted Earth with ‘killer electrons’ in 2013

18 Feb 2015

Solar flare image via NASA/SDO

You might not have noticed, but on 8 October 2013 two satellites orbiting Earth captured for the first time a massive solar shockwave that blasted the planet with ‘ultrarelativistic, killer electrons’.

The explosion from the sun’s surface sent an enormous supersonic wave of energy out into the solar system where it eventually reached Earth in what MIT Technology Review, says was a ‘massive blow’ to Earth’s magnetic field resulting in a magnetic sound pulse that reverberated across the entire planet.

While the vast majority of Earth’s population might not have noticed the cosmic events going on over their heads, NASA’s Van Allen probes certainly caught the sonic pulse which lasted approximately 60 seconds in what was the first time it had ever been directly captured by astronomers.

The team from MIT’s Haystack Observatory at the University of Colorado have been leading the research using data obtained from the probes and have found that as a result of just this one minute of activity, particular particles in Earth’s atmosphere were accelerated to reach ultra-high levels of energy that would be powerful enough to go right through a satellite.

A ‘sledgehammer blow’ to our magnetic field

Describing its effects on the Earth’s magnetic field, associate director of the observatory, John Foster, said it effectively struck a ‘sledgehammer blow’, but rather than break through, bounced off it reaching the far-side of the Earth in a matter of seconds.

The data obtained by the team allowed them to identify the way in which certain particles in the radiation belts are accelerated giving them a better understanding of the way solar flares effect our planet.

Thankfully, Foster said, we can rest a little easier given that his event was considered relatively minor.

“Interactions between solar activity and Earth’s magnetosphere can create the radiation belt in a number of ways, some of which can take months, others days. The shock process takes seconds to minutes. This could be the tip of the iceberg in how we understand radiation-belt physics,” he said.

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic