The coronal mass ejection on 10 September as captured by Nasa's Solar Dynamics Observatory

Solar storm threatens to wreak havoc with GPS

GPS signals, radio communications and power transmission networks could experience disruption on Friday after a powerful solar storm shot directly to Earth.

The US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) issued an alert on Thursday after an unusual double coronal mass ejection (CME) had burst from a magnetically disturbed region on the Earth’s closest star.

NOAA said that although such CMEs don’t pose much risk in normal circumstances, the close timing of the two ejections and their direct path towards the Earth have put the researchers on alert.

"We don't expect any unmanageable impacts to national infrastructure from these solar events at this time, but we are watching these events closely," said Thomas Berger, director of NOAA’s Space Weather Prediction Center.

"The unique thing about this event is that we've had two in close succession and the CMEs could possibly be interacting on their way to Earth, at the Earth's orbit or beyond. We just don't know that yet," he said, adding that the US infrastructure operators had been notified just in case.

The first ejection of highly energetic particles from the surface of the Sun, which is now at the most active stage of its 11-year cycle, occurred on Monday. The scientists expected this solar storm to reach the Earth during the Thursday night. The second, more powerful, burst followed on Wednesday afternoon.

NOAA said the resulting magnetic storm could affect communication systems and power grids in northern latitudes, as well as satellites in orbit around the Earth.

The interaction between the highly energetic magnetically charged particles of the CMEs and Earth’s atmosphere may also produce spectacular displays of aurora borealis, also known as the northern lights.

Storms as powerful as the ones now making their way toward Earth typically occur 100 to 200 times during a solar cycle, Berger said. According to the scientists, although currently peaking, the latest solar cycle seems to have produced lower than average levels of solar activity.

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