Solar storm: ESA warns we can’t stop ‘satellite damage’ and blackouts if major storm hits

Solar storms are powerful blasts of energy from the Sun that render technology useless and trigger space weather events. Mild outbursts of charged particles from the Sun excited the gases in our atmosphere and produce beautiful aurora or Northern Lights. But the Sun is incredibly unpredictable and the European Space Agency (ESA) fears the world is unprepared for when a major solar storm strikes.

According to ESA, solar storms can jeopardise satellite operations and the technology that relies on them.

On the ground, cars and mobile devices can lose contact with GPS satellites.

Radio frequencies can be disrupted, potentially cutting off emergency services from contact in disaster zones.

Even powers systems can become overloaded and suffer outages and full-on blackouts.

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In the skies, powerful storms can damage and destroy satellites, putting at risk aeroplanes that rely on air-to-ground communications.

Astronauts working in the vacuum of space or exploring the Moon and Mars on future missions would be at risk of increased radiation exposure.

ESA said: “In Europe’s economy today, numerous sectors can be affected by space weather.

“These range from space-based telecommunications, broadcasting, weather services and navigation, through to power distribution and terrestrial communications, especially at northern latitudes.

“One significant influence of solar activity is seen in disturbances in satellite navigation services, like Galileo, due to space weather effects on the upper atmosphere.

“This, in turn, can affect aviation, road transport, shipping and any other activities that depend on precise positioning.”

protective measures against space weather are becoming increasingly important

European Space Agency (ESA)

Because of these threats to what ESA called “modernity”, the space agency is developing an early warning system.

ESA is planning a mission to watch the Sun from deep space in a bid to collect data on solar activity before it strikes Earth.

The deep-space observation point is known as the fifth Lagrange point – a very specific part of space where the tug of Earth’s gravity and the Sun’s gravity are balanced out.

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The space agency said the mission will monitor the burning heart of our solar system for “potentially hazardous” sunspots and high-speed solar winds streaming towards Earth.

ESA said: “It will detect solar events and their propagation toward the Earth with higher accuracy than is possible today, transmitting data to Earth and distributing it into ESA’s Space Weather Service Network in near real-time, to generate warnings and forecasts.

“As much of modern human society becomes ever more reliant on space-based services, vulnerable to the Sun’s outbursts, protective measures against space weather are becoming increasingly important.”

Solar storms or geomagnetic storms over Earth are typically triggered by an onslaught of solar winds.

Solar winds are highly-charged streams of particles – electrons, protons and heavier ions – from the Sun that interact with Earth’s natural magnetic field.

Earth’s magnetosphere protects life on Earth from these solar storms for the most part but the barrier is not foolproof.

Powerful blasts known as Coronal Mass Ejections (CMEs) can disrupt the magnetic field enough to trigger storms.

ESA will discuss the topic of dangerous space weather and solar storms at ESA’s 2019 Ministerial Council in Seville, Spain, between November 27 and 28.

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