Devastating solar storm a matter of 'when, not if' warns Met Office


A devastating solar storm which could fry power grids and knock out communication systems on Earth is a matter of ‘when, not if’, the Met Office warned.

Solar storms – high-speed streams of radioactive particles launched from the sun – pose a threat to national infrastructure, UK industry and the wider public, it said.

These potentially devastating storms are the focus of a new European Space Agency satellite dubbed the Solar Orbiter – a mission part-funded by the UK Space Agency.

British engineers are putting the finishing touches to the satellite this week before sending it to Germany to begin a year-long test campaign.

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Airbus engineers working on the probe. British engineers are putting the finishing touches to the European Space Agency's Solar Orbiter satellite this week before sending it to Germany to begin a year-long test campaign 

Airbus engineers working on the probe. British engineers are putting the finishing touches to the European Space Agency’s Solar Orbiter satellite this week before sending it to Germany to begin a year-long test campaign 

Catherine Burnett, head of the Met Office’s Space Weather Monitoring Unit, said the probe will help scientists spot and prepare for future solar storms.

The largest solar storm ever recorded, The Carrington Event in 1859, took out telegraph machines across the US, purportedly causing sparks to fly from equipment – some bad enough to set fires inside offices.

Scientists have previously warned that a repeat of the event could grind the world’s high-tech infrastructure to a halt.

‘The threat of space weather to national infrastructure, UK industry and the wider public is such that it is now part of the Government National Risk Register and there is a need for forecasting to try to mitigate that risk,’ Ms Burnett told the Telegraph.

‘We try to advise when space weather will have an impact on technology, so we’re looking for solar flares which can knock out high frequency telecommunications, coronal mass ejections which have the potential to take out our power grids and solar radiation which impact satellite communications systems and GPS.

‘We think that the big solar incidents, like the Carrington Event, happen between one in 100 or one in 200 years, so it is a case of “when, not if” we have one.’

WHAT ARE SOLAR STORMS AND ARE THEY DANGEROUS?

Solar storms, or solar activity, can be divided into four main components that can have impacts on Earth:  

  • Solar flares: A large explosion in the sun’s atmosphere. These flares are made of photons that travel out directly from the flare site. Solar flares impact Earth only when they occur on the side of the sun facing Earth.  
  • Coronal Mass Ejections (CME’s): Large clouds of plasma and magnetic field that erupt from the sun. These clouds can erupt in any direction, and then continue on in that direction, plowing through solar wind. These clouds only cause impacts to Earth when they’re aimed at Earth. 
  • High-speed solar wind streams: These come from coronal holes on the sun, which form anywhere on the sun and usually only when they are closer to the solar equator do the winds impact Earth. 
  • Solar energetic particles: High-energy charged particles thought to be released primarily by shocks formed at the front of coronal mass ejections and solar flares. When a CME cloud plows through solar wind, solar energetic particles can be produced and because they are charged, they follow the magnetic field lines between the Sun and Earth. Only charged particles that follow magnetic field lines that intersect Earth will have an impact. 

While these may seem dangerous, astronauts are not in immediate danger of these phenomena because of the relatively low orbit of manned missions.

However, they do have to be concerned about cumulative exposure during space walks.

The damage caused by solar storms 

Solar flares can damage satellites and have an enormous financial cost.

The charged particles can also threaten airlines by disturbing Earth’s magnetic field.

Very large flares can even create currents within electricity grids and knock out energy supplies.

When Coronal Mass Ejections strike Earth they cause geomagnetic storms and enhanced aurora.

They can disrupt radio waves, GPS coordinates and overload electrical systems.

A large influx of energy could flow into high voltage power grids and permanently damage transformers.

This could shut off businesses and homes around the world. 

Source: NASA – Solar Storm and Space Weather 

The ESA’s Solar Orbiter will observe the sun’s poles to study its atmosphere, known as the corona.

This is the region where solar storms originate, and scientists hope that shedding light on how the corona forms will also provide answers on what triggers the storms.

The satellite is due to launch in 202 from Cape Canaveral in Florida, USA.

It was constructed at an Airbus factory in Stevenage, and is currently being prepared to travel to Germany for intensive testing ahead of its flight.

Solar Orbiter will fly within 27 million miles (43 million km) of the solar surface to closely inspect our star’s poles.

Its heat shields are expected to reach temperatures of up to 600°C (1,112°F) during its closest flybys.

This image captured by Nasa shows a solar flare. The largest solar storm ever recorded, The Carrington Event in 1859, took out telegraph machines across the US, reportedly causing sparks to fly from some equipment - some bad enough to set fires 

This image captured by Nasa shows a solar flare. The largest solar storm ever recorded, The Carrington Event in 1859, took out telegraph machines across the US, reportedly causing sparks to fly from some equipment – some bad enough to set fires 

Engineers designed the spacecraft to withstand extremes of temperature –scorching heat from the sun battering one side of the satellite, while the other remains frozen because the orbit keeps it in permanent shadow.

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UK Space Agency Head of Science Chris Lee said: ‘This is an exciting time for solar science.

‘UK research and engineering teams are at the heart of this mission which will help us understand more about our star – the sun – and its effects on us all here on Earth.’

Pictured are the satellite's dense heat shield, including holes for its telescopes to peak through. The Solar Orbiter will be loaded with a carefully selected set of 10 telescopes and direct sensing instruments 

Pictured are the satellite’s dense heat shield, including holes for its telescopes to peak through. The Solar Orbiter will be loaded with a carefully selected set of 10 telescopes and direct sensing instruments 

WHAT IS THE ESA’S SOLAR ORBITER MISSION?

Solar Orbiter is a European Space Agency mission to explore the sun and its effect on the solar system.

The satellite’s launch is planned for 2020 from Cape Canaveral in Florida, USA.

It will be loaded with a carefully selected set of 10 telescopes and direct sensing instruments.

Solar Orbiter will fly within 27 million miles (43 million km) of the solar surface to closely inspect our star’s poles.

Solar Orbiter (artist's impression) is a European Space Agency mission to explore the sun and its effect on the solar system. Its launch is planned for 2020 from Cape Canaveral in Florida, USA

Solar Orbiter (artist’s impression) is a European Space Agency mission to explore the sun and its effect on the solar system. Its launch is planned for 2020 from Cape Canaveral in Florida, USA

Scientists are investigating how the sun’s violent outer atmosphere, also known as its corona, forms.

This is the region from which ‘solar wind’ – storms of charged particles that can disrupt electronics on Earth – are blown out into space.

Through Solar Orbiter, researchers hope to unravel what triggers solar storms to help better predict them in future.

The Solar Orbiter’s heat shields are expected to reach temperatures of up to 600C (1,112F) during its closest flybys.

It will work closely with Nasa’s Parker Solar Probe, which launched in August 2018, and is also studying the sun’s corona.



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