Solar storm: NASA captures the moment a sunspot 'explodes'
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Of the various doomsday threats Earth faces from space, solar storms do not rank high on the agenda for most. Yet these high-energy ejections from the Sun have the potential to cause devastation. Earth is rarely impacted by them, but their destructive trail can be seen all across the Solar System and so scientists are now investigating further.
Astrophysicist Dr Michelle Thaller told BigThink: “The source of these high-energy particles and exactly how they get accelerated away from the Sun is what we are studying right now.
“When I say high-energy particles, I’m talking electrons, protons – sometimes as large as the nucleus of a helium atom.
“They get blasted through our Solar System at one million mile-per-hour.”
“We have this very high energy wind and it changes planets – it’s responsible for Mars losing its atmosphere over time.”
Dr Thaller said solar storms are responsible for “Mars losing its atmosphere” and “Venus becoming this hellish thing”.
But, she added: “The only reason the Earth is not affected by it much is because we have a very strong magnetic field.
“Our molten-metal core moving around inside the Earth creates a magnetic bubble.
“That protects us against solar winds.”
But one day the Sun will chip away at our atmosphere, leaving the Earth exposed.
Dr Thaller added: “We have an early warning system to see if there is something dangerous coming from the Sun.
“We would have probably about a day’s notice.
“Solar winds don’t normally pose much danger to us, but just like weather – sometimes there are really big thunderstorms.
“In the case of the Sun, it sometimes has very chaotic storms – in one moment you could have trillions of tonnes of fast, high-moving charged material heading to Earth.
“The biggest danger of these things to us is that when they hit the Earth’s field that it could wipe out power grids.”
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In the last 200 years, astronomers have recorded two solar storms responsible for global disruptions.
The biggest of the two was the so-called Carrington Event of 1859.
After a particularly powerful solar storm struck the planet, the resulting solar storm caused telegraph wires across North America and Europe to sparkle and burn out.
Today, a Carrington-level event would likely bring down the internet, knock out GPS satellites and trigger global power blackouts – and the bad news is one such storm came dangerously close to happening in 2012.
Physicists examined the solar storm and in 2014 compiled a grim report about the damage it may have caused to Earth’s infrastructure.
According to their report, the total economic impact of the storm would have surpassed £1.45trillion ($2trillion).
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