Every eleven years, on average, the Sun reaches the peak of its activity cycle and lets out a cosmic hiss. Earth, and the rest of the solar system, must endure a burst of solar flares and coronal mass ejections (CMEs) that emit solar particles and electromagnetic radiation. As long as the Suns’ meltdown is mild to moderate, we should get through it without too much trouble, but if things go wrong the right way, the results could be catastrophic.
Here’s what happens inside Solar attack (streaming now on Peacock!) when a major CME, coupled with rising methane levels in Earth’s atmosphere, threatens to bake the planet in a global extinction-level fire. In the real world, we are approaching solar maximum of solar cycle 25 and the Sun is increasing the strength and frequency of its CMEs and solar flares. While we haven’t pumped the atmosphere with flammable concentrations of methane, we have put a lot of energy into building communications infrastructure. And that could lead to an apocalypse of another kind. Now, data from NASA’s Parker Solar Probe could provide information that could prevent a technological end of the world.
A powerful CME could trigger an internet apocalypse
Solar flares and CMEs pose no great threat to us directly; you don’t have to worry about being hit by a ray of solar energy or anything. Primarily, how we experience them is through the aurora which lights up the night sky near the poles and, during times of intense solar activity, closer to the equator. However, they can cause problems for satellites or astronauts in low Earth orbit and can interfere with our communications and electrical systems here on earth.
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In 1859, an intense geomagnetic storm struck the planet in what has come to be known as The Carrington Event. The storm occurred a few months before solar maximum of solar cycle 10 and created incredible auroras that have been reported around the world. It also gutted humanity’s fledgling communications systems.
When the solar storm hit, telegraph lines across North America and Europe were affected. In some cases, sparks have broken out, fires have broken out and operators have been given electric shocks. The electrical activity in the air was so powerful that some telegraph operators reportedly disconnected battery power to their equipment, but were still able to send communications for several hours, using the auroral current.
If an equally powerful solar storm were to occur today, it is estimated that we would experience worldwide blackouts and damage to communication systems and power grids that could last for months. It’s not the worst end times scenario imaginable, but the impact on production and supply chains of essential materials such as food, water and medicines would be drastically hampered. Calling it an “internet apocalypse” severely understates how bad it would be.
How the Parker solar probe could save the day
NASA’s Parker Solar Probe (PSP) was launched in 2018 and has spent the last few years circling the Sun, getting ever closer. Recently, astronomers reported that the PSP flew close enough to the Sun to detect the fine structure of the solar wind as it was created. Normally, much of this detail is lost as the solar wind expands outward in the solar system. It’s a bit like trying to understand the mechanics of a water flow without looking at the source. The new PSP observations allow astronomers to stick their nose right into the Suns tube nozzle, so to speak.
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A team of researchers led by Stuart D. Bale, professor of physics at the University of California, Berkeley, and James Drake of the University of Maryland, has discovered that streams of high-energy particles escaping from coronal holes are the origin of fast solar winds.
Winds carry a lot of information from the Sun to Earth, so understanding the mechanism behind the Sun’s wind is important for practical reasons on Earth. This will affect our ability to understand how the Sun releases energy and drives geomagnetic storms, which pose a threat to our communications networks, Drake said in a statement.
A better understanding of where solar winds come from, how they are generated and how they change as they travel towards our planet could give scientists new tools to protect us from an apocalypse that is likely inevitable on long enough timescales.
We could always take a cue from Solar attack and solve the problem with nuclear bombs. You can see how well that worked on Peacocknow!
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