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More powerful solar storms are expected by astronomers

More powerful solar storms are expected by astronomers

Last week's major solar storms are still being analysed, while a larger eruption from the same AR 3664 sunspot cluster is already on the horizon.

A danger from space – at least for our high-tech world: solar storms. – Solar Orbiter/EUI Team/ESA/NASA/DPA

The basics in a nutshell

  • Solar activity reaches a maximum.
  • After the strong solar storm last weekend, there is a risk of a renewed outbreak of the disease.
  • Sunspot cluster AR 3664 was responsible for the solar storms.

The sun is very active now. The powerful solar storms that occurred last weekend are still being evaluated by satellite operators. However, in the meantime, the Sun continued to rotate and the AR 3664 sunspot cluster rotated to the side, so that only parts of the solar plasma could reach the Earth during solar flares.

Solar storms can affect not only Earth satellites, but also astronauts on the International Space Station. “The decision on whether the ISS crew should go to a protected area during a solar storm depends on the strength of the solar storm and the potential radiation exposure of the crew,” ESA astronaut Alexander Gerst told the German news agency DPA. According to NASA, there was no immediate danger to the International Space Station crew during last week's solar storm.

The Sun's activity fluctuates in a cycle of approximately eleven years. The current cycle is currently at its maximum – it lasts a few years, during which there is always a relatively large number of solar flares. “On Tuesday we witnessed the most powerful eruption of the entire cycle so far,” said Sami Solanki of the Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research in Göttingen. It cannot be said whether the peak current limit has already been reached.

Astronomer Volker Böttmer from the University of Göttingen explained that the current solar cycle is somewhat stronger than the previous cycle. It is estimated that the maximum will last about two years and then decrease. He could not predict whether the activity would become stronger or not. According to data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the number of sunspots is nowhere near the level it was at the peak of the maximum in the late 1950s and early 2000s.

Agricultural satellites are affected

According to NOAA's Space Weather Prediction Center (SWPC), Tuesday's large eruption also produced the strongest flare — a type of massive flash of light — of the current solar cycle. Its radiation caused high-frequency radio signal failures across America. Radio operators, pilots, and amateur sailors may have noticed a sudden loss of signal at high frequencies. Geomagnetic influences such as the northern lights were considered unlikely.

The major solar storm that occurred last weekend not only caused colorful northern lights in many regions around the world, but also caused malfunctions in several satellites, for example at the European Space Agency ESA. An ESA spokeswoman confirmed: “ESA satellites were also affected, but we are still collecting data.” She said that some satellites in Earth's orbit deviate slightly from their path due to the change in atmospheric drag that always affects them. Course corrections should now get them back on track.

Solar storms captured by NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory (SDO) on May 9, 2024. – NASA/AP/dpa

Many farmers in North America have complained about the failure of the US satellite-based GPS navigation system, as reported by The New York Times, among others. So they had to stop planting because they were using the system to work in the fields. According to a report in the journal Nature, Internet communications from Starlink, a subsidiary of the space company SpaceX that owns thousands of satellites, were also temporarily affected. NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory instruments were temporarily stored for protection. It orbits the Earth and observes space.

Although sunspot cluster AR 3664 disappears behind the Sun as seen from Earth, astronomers can continue to analyze it. Solanki, who participates in his institute, said that the “Solar Orbiter” space probe orbits the sun and observes it from directions other than the Earth.

Researchers expect a coronal mass ejection to soon impact Mars, Shannon Carey, a planetary scientist at the University of Colorado Boulder, told Nature.