The Sun emitted a strong solar flare, peaking at 10:33 p.m. ET on March 28, 2023. NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory, which watches the Sun constantly, captured an image of the event.
Solar flares are powerful bursts of energy. Flares and solar eruptions can impact radio communications, electric power grids, navigation signals, and pose risks to spacecraft and astronauts.
This flare is classified as an X1.2 flare. X-class denotes the most intense flares, while the number provides more information about its strength.
To see how such space weather may affect Earth, please visit NOAA’s Space Weather Prediction Center https://spaceweather.gov/, the U.S. government’s official source for space weather forecasts, watches, warnings, and alerts. NASA works as a research arm of the nation’s space weather effort. NASA observes the Sun and our space environment constantly with a fleet of spacecraft that study everything from the Sun’s activity to the solar atmosphere, and to the particles and magnetic fields in the space surrounding Earth.
US space agency NASA has warned that the Sun is expected to release more frequent horrific solar flares in the near future as it nears the peak of its 11-year cycle called the solar maximum.
Solar flares are dangerous for Earth, as the radiation it releases can interfere with our radio communications. These storms impact every electronic and communication system, from the internet to power, and are also capable of destroying satellites.
“Solar events will continue to increase as we near the solar maximum in 2025, and our lives and technology on Earth, as well as satellites and astronauts in space, will be impacted, ” NASA warned in its latest blog.
According to the space agency, the Sun is going through the Solar Cycle 25, which started in December 2019. This time period implies that the Sun’s activity will continue to increase till it reaches peak levels during the solar cycle.
Solar storms release coronal mass ejections (CME) towards the Earth. The CME leads to geomagnetic storms on Earth and affects all electrical infrastructure here.
NASA also released a video of a solar flare event to show how it affects the Earth commun ..
“With more CME activity comes an increase in space weather events including solar flares and solar eruptions, which can impact radio communications, electric power grids, and navigation signals, as well as pose risks to spacecraft and astronauts,” NASA added.
Understanding and predicting space weather is a big part of NASA’s job. There’s no air up there, so no one can hear you scream, “Wow, how about this radiation!” Consequently, we rely on a set of satellites to detect and relay this important data to us.
One such measurement is of solar wind, “an unrelenting stream of material from the sun.” Even NASA can’t find anything nice to say about it! Normally this stream is absorbed or dissipated by our magnetosphere, but if there’s a solar storm, it may be intense enough that it overwhelms the local defenses.
The eruption is likely to have hit NASA’s Parker Solar Probe head-on. The spacecraft is currently nearing its 15th closest approach of the Sun (or perihelion), flying within 5.3 million miles (8.5 million kilometers) of the Sun on March 17. On March 13, the spacecraft sent a green beacon tone showing the spacecraft is in its nominal operational mode. The scientists and engineers are awaiting the next data download from the spacecraft, which will occur after the close approach, to learn more about this CME event and any potential impacts.
The eruption is known as a halo CME because it appears to spread out evenly from the Sun in a halo, or ring, around the Sun. Halo CMEs depend on the observer’s position, occurring when the solar eruption is aligned either directly toward Earth, or as in this case, directly away from Earth. This expanding ring is apparent in the view from NASA/ESA’s Solar and Heliospheric Observatory, or SOHO, spacecraft shown below. SOHO observes the Sun from a location about 1 million miles closer to the Sun along the Sun-Earth line. In SOHO’s view, the Sun’s bright surface is blocked to reveal the much fainter solar atmosphere and erupting solar material around it. The bright dot on the lower right side of the image is Mercury.
Even though the CME erupted from the opposite side of the Sun, its impacts were felt at Earth. As CMEs blast through space, they create a shockwave that can accelerate particles along the CME’s path to incredible speeds, much the way surfers are pushed along by an incoming ocean wave. Known as solar energetic particles, or SEPs, these speedy particles can make the 93-million-mile journey from the Sun to Earth in around 30 minutes.
Though SEPs are commonly observed after Earth-facing solar eruptions, they are less common for eruptions on the far side of the Sun. Nonetheless, spacecraft orbiting Earth detected SEPs from the eruption starting at midneaning the CME was powerful enough to set off a broad cascade of collisions that managed to reach our side of the Sun. NASA’s space weather scientists are still analyzing the event to learn more about how it achieved this impressive and far-reaching effect.
When this happens, it can set electronics on the fritz, since these charged particles can flip bits or disrupt volatile memory like RAM and solid state storage. NASA relates that even telegraph stations weren’t safe, blowing up during the largest on-record solar storm, 1859’s Carrington Event.
While we can’t stop these stellar events from occurring, we might be able to better prepare for them if we knew they were coming. But usually by the time we know, they’re basically already here. But how can we predict such infrequent and chaotic events?
A joint project between NASA, the U.S. Geological Survey, and the Department of Energy at the Frontier Development Lab has been looking into this issue, and the answer is exactly what you’d expect: machine learning.
The team collected data on solar flares from multiple satellites monitoring the sun, as well as from ground stations watching for geomagnetic disruptions (called perturbations), like those that affect technology. The deep learning model they designed identified patterns in how the former leads to the latter, and they call the resulting system DAGGER: Deep leArninG Geomagnetic PErtuRbation.
Yes, it’s a stretch. But it seems to work.
Using geomagnetic storms that hit Earth in 2015 and 2023 as test data, the team found that DAGGER was able to quickly and accurately forecast their effects across the globe. This combines the strengths of previous approaches while avoiding their disadvantages. As NASA put it:
Previous prediction models have used AI to produce local geomagnetic forecasts for specific locations on Earth. Other models that didn’t use AI have provided global predictions that weren’t very timely. DAGGER is the first one to combine the swift analysis of AI with real measurements from space and across Earth to generate frequently updated predictions that are both prompt and precise for sites worldwide.
It may be a bit before you get a solar alert on your phone telling you to pull over or your car might stop working (this won’t actually happen…probably), but it could make a big difference when we know there’s vulnerable infrastructure that could suddenly shut down. A few minutes’ warning is better than none!
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