Backyard astronomy: Earth dodged a solar bullet last month

For most, February 15 seemed like an ordinary day.

We recognized Flag Day, the day the Canadian maple leaf flag was first raised in Ottawa in 1965. But things played out differently on the surface of the sun, with a huge explosion in the space, known as coronal mass ejection (CME).

The good news for us: this intense X-class happened on the far side of the sun, with the particles moving away from us. This class of flare is the most powerful on the scale.

The sun is a huge ball of hot plasma, spanning the width of 109 Earths aligned side by side like a string of pearls at its equator.

The immense energy of the sun is produced in its heart. Every second, 600 million tons of hydrogen are converted into 595 million tons of helium. The remaining five million tons produce pure energy that helps sustain life here on Earth.

This has been going on for 4.6 billion years and will continue for another four to five billion.

During the sun’s 11-year solar cycle, the internal magnetic field lines begin to twist, accumulating energy. Eventually, this energy is released in solar flares, forming large loops anchored to the solar disk.

However, there are times when the energy from the eruption is so intense that a CME explodes on the surface, traveling through the solar system via the solar wind. In calm weather, the solar winds blow at about 350 kilometers per second, but a very intense explosion can reach 2,000 kilometers per second.

When a cloud meets Earth, it can trigger the spectacular Northern Lights, also known as the Northern Lights. On a typical day, about 20 flares are seen on the surface of the sun.

When our atmosphere interacts with a solar storm, it helps inflate our atmosphere and is extremely dangerous for satellites. They can malfunction or be dragged down and destroyed when they burn up in the atmosphere.

It happened with a geomagnetic storm that hit Earth in late January, bringing down 40 of the 49 Starlink satellites that SpaceX had just sent out. This new batch had not reached operating altitude and fell from the sky, costing around $20 million.

Another dangerous factor is that if the CME had been oriented towards the Earth, our planet could have had serious problems. Solar storms like these can destroy power grids, like the Quebec blackout of March 13, 1989, when transformers melted.

One of the most intense storms to hit Earth was called the Carrington Event of September 1859. Teleprinters were still able to transmit messages, even with the batteries disconnected.

There were even reports of paper and machinery catching fire. The aurora was so bright that prospectors looking for gold woke up in the middle of the night. They started to prepare breakfast, thinking that the sun was rising.

At some point in the future, we will possibly be hit by another such Carrington event. When this happens, power grids will be affected or fail, impacting our daily lives. We are so dependent on electricity and the internet for urban and rural infrastructure.

We dodged a solar bullet on February 15. The current solar cycle ramps up to the height of Solar Max for some time in July 2025. By then, there will be more chances of seeing the twinkling Northern Lights.

Until next time, clear skies.

Gary Boyle is an astronomy educator, speaker and monthly columnist for the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada. He has also been interviewed on over 50 Canadian radio stations and was honored with the renaming of asteroid (22406) Garyboyle. Follow him on Twitter: @astroeducator or on its website, www.wondersofastronomy.com.

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