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A solar storm creates a spectacle and provides insights for science

A solar storm creates a spectacle and provides insights for science

May 2024 is proving to be a particularly stormy month for our Sun. In the first week of the month, a series of large solar flares and coronal mass ejections (CMEs) hurled clouds of charged particles and magnetic fields toward Earth. The phenomenon created the most powerful solar storm to hit our planet in two decades, and one of the most impressive auroral displays recorded in the last 500 years.

  • May 2024 will bring a series of massive solar flares and coronal mass ejections (CMEs) that will cause the most powerful solar storm in two decades and one of the most impressive aurora displays in the last 500 years. This event will be studied for years, helping to test the limits of solar storm models;
  • Between May 7 and 11, several intense solar flares occurred, including eight X-class flares, one of which reached X8.7. The coronal ejection traveled at speeds of up to 5 million kilometers per hour and created a G5 geomagnetic storm, the highest level since 2003;
  • The solar storm created an auroral “display” visible at unusually low latitudes, such as the southern United States and northern India. An intense aurora was seen on the night of May 10 and continued throughout the weekend, with thousands of reports (and records provided by “ordinary people”) helping scientists learn more about the aurora;
  • Before the storm, warnings were sent to power grid and satellite operators to mitigate its effects. Some NASA missions, such as ICESat-2, have taken precautionary measures. Future missions, such as GDC and DYNAMIC, will analyze how solar storms affect Earth’s atmosphere, and will be valuable for future manned missions to the Moon and Mars.
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“We will be studying this event for years,” said Teresa Nieves Chinchilla, acting director of NASA’s Space Weather Analysis Office. On the space agency’s website. “This will help us test the limits of our models and understand solar storms.”

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Solar storms can have powerful properties

The first signs of a solar storm began late on May 7 with two powerful solar flares. From May 7 to 11, several intense solar flares and at least seven CMEs progressed toward Earth.

Eight of these explosions were of the most powerful type, known as Class X, with the most powerful reaching a rating of X5.8. Since then, the same solar region has unleashed several other large explosions, including the X8.7 explosion – the most powerful explosion seen this solar cycle – on May 14.

The coronal emissions traveled at speeds of up to 5 million kilometers per hour, and gathered into waves that reached the Earth as of May 10, creating a long-lasting geomagnetic storm that reached the G5 classification – the highest level on the geomagnetic storm scale, not seen since 2003. .

“The CME arrived almost all at once, and the conditions were perfect to create a truly historic storm,” said Elizabeth MacDonald, NASA’s heliophysics pioneer and a space scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland.

Solar storm causes aurora borealis display

(Image: Mara Johnson-Groh/NASA)

When the storm reached Earth, it caused an auroral “display” in the skies of several countries. The aurora borealis was visible even at unusually low latitudes, including the southern United States and northern India.

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The most powerful aurora borealis were seen on the night of May 10 and continued to light up the night sky throughout the weekend. Thousands of reports submitted to the NASA-funded citizen science site Aurorasaurus helped scientists study the event and learn more about the aurora.

“Cameras — even regular cell phone cameras — are much more sensitive to twilight colors than they were in the past,” MacDonald said. “By collecting images from around the world, we have a great opportunity to learn more about the aurora through citizen science.”

Measurements of geomagnetic storm strength, such as the Nuisance Storm Time Index dating back to 1957, show that this storm was similar to historical events in 1958 and 2003.

Furthermore, with reports of aurora visible up to 26 degrees magnetic latitude, this latest storm may rival some of the lowest latitude aurora observations recorded over the past five centuries, although scientists are still evaluating this Category.

Warnings help NASA missions prepare for a solar storm

Digital illustration of the Sun produced by NASA
(Image: NASA)

Before the storm, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Space Weather Prediction Center, which is responsible for forecasting the impacts of solar storms, sent notices to commercial power grid and satellite operators to help them mitigate potential impacts.

Warnings helped many NASA missions prepare for the storm, with some spacecraft preemptively shutting down certain instruments or systems to avoid problems. NASA’s ICESat-2 satellite – which studies the polar ice sheets – entered safe mode, likely due to increased drag caused by the storm.

Better data on how solar events affect Earth’s upper atmosphere is crucial to understanding the impact of space weather on satellites, manned missions, and ground and space infrastructure. To date, there are only limited direct measurements in this region. But there’s more on the way.

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Upcoming missions will analyze how solar storms affect Earth’s atmosphere

Earth as seen from space
(Photo: US Government)

Future missions, such as NASA’s Geospatial Dynamics Constellation (GDC) and Dynamic Neutral Ionospheric Coupling (DYNAMIC), will be able to see and measure how Earth’s atmosphere responds to the energy fluxes that occur during solar storms like these. Such measurements will also be valuable as NASA sends astronauts to the Moon on Artemis missions and later to Mars.

The solar region responsible for the recent stormy weather is now moving to the far side of the sun, where its effects cannot reach Earth. However, this does not mean that the storm is over.

NASA’s Sun-Earth Relations Observatory (STEREO), currently located about 12 degrees above Earth in its orbit, will continue monitoring the active region for another day after it is no longer visible from Earth.