Solar eruption set to spark major geomagnetic storm today

24 Jan 2012

NASA image depicting solar flare as observed by the Atmospheric Imaging Assembly (AIA) on NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory (SDO) on 23 January 2012. NASA image courtesy of SDO

Scientists and telecommunication providers are today keeping a close eye on the sun’s activities, as NASA is predicting that an earth-directed coronal mass ejection (CME) is set to reach the planet’s magnetosphere today.

Yesterday, NASA reported the strongest solar radiation storm since September 2005. This was due to an eruption on the sun on 22 January. This eruption caused a solar flare, which resulted in a coronal mass ejection (CME), a cloud of solar plasma that was ejected from the solar atmosphere in the direction of Earth.

NASA’s Goddard Space Weather Center last night predicted that this CME was moving at almost 2,253 kilometres per second. It said it could reach the magnetic envelope that surrounds Earth (magnetosphere) this morning (24 January) at 9am ET, plus or minus seven hours.

So what can we expect from the CME?

While such solar activity does not pose a threat to the Earth’s surface because the magnetosphere and atmosphere both deflect and absorb the solar energy and particles, such storms can affect the electronics and transmissions on science, military and communications satellites, plus solar storms can affect radio signals.

This morning, said solar protons caused by the M9-class solar flare are streaming past Earth. Based on the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) scale of radiation storms, it said this storm could rank as S3, meaning it could cause isolated reboots of computers onboard Earth-orbiting satellites and interfere with polar radio communications.

Between 2012 and 2013, the sun is set to reach its solar maximum so scientists are anticipating increased solar storm activity.

“I would expect that we will see more storms like this one or even bigger as we get closer to solar maximum,” said Michael Hesse, chief of heliophysics at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, yesterday.

Carmel Doyle was a long-time reporter with Silicon Republic