Topic of the Moment – solar storms
Physicists in the US claim that a solar storm would have knocked out everything electrical on Earth had it hit the planet. But what are solar storms anyway?
The acceleration of the electrons in the Sun is understood to be caused by magnetic reconnection – the magnetic field lines in the plasma break and reconnect, converting some of the energy of the magnetic field into thermal and kinetic energy.
Solar flares release a burst of energy equivalent to about a sixth of the Sun’s normal power output, and are often followed by a coronal mass ejection – in which huge amounts of charged particles and radiation are released from the Sun at very high speed.
Sometimes the ejected material simply rises as an arc above the Sun’s surface – a solar prominence. Occasionally, however, it’s blown out into the solar system. If it interacts with the Earth’s magnetic field, it can cause a geomagnetic storm.
The largest known such storm is the “Carrington Event”, which took place in 1859 and was observed by amateur astronomer Richard Carrington. Were a coronal mass ejection to hit the Earth today, it would likely cause widespread damage to electrical systems.