Just How Safe Are We From The Sun?
July 9, 2012 1 Comment
That little bright light in the sky is getting a lot more violent as one of the hottest years in history continues to get hotter. Solar flares are becoming an increasing issue as NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory recorded the summer’s first “X” solar flare on Friday. NASA is worried of the destruction the sun could reign on technology if the Earth takes a full direct hit.
Over the last six days, 12 different “M” solar flares have knocked out radio signals across the planet. The culprit behind the recent flares is a sunspot group known as AR1515 which stretches across 118,681 miles of the sun’s surface. Just how big is that you ask? In total, the AR1515 sunspot is more that 15 Earths wide, set end to end.
Solar flares are set on a scale of either A, B, C, M, or X with A being the smallest, and X being the largest. Similar to the Richter scale for earthquakes, each letter represents a 10-fold increase in energy output, meaning an X solar flare is ten times as powerful as an M solar flare and 100 times as powerful as a C.
The sun is now heading into the peak of its 11-ear solar flare cycle. The current cycle is said to end in 2013, leaving even more violent space weather on the horizon. With the increased spread in communication technology in the last 11 years, a severe solar storm could cause major issues for planet Earth. Radio blackouts occur when the X-rays or extreme UV light from a flare disturb the ionosphere, the layer of Earth’s atmosphere through which radio waves travel. The constant changes in the ionosphere change the paths of the radio waves as they move, degrading the information they carry. This affects both low and high frequency radio waves alike.
The blast of particles from AR1515 was not directed towards earth, but the charged particles caused brief radio interference across Europe. Models from NASA’s Space Weather Center described the solar flare ejection as traveling nearly 700 miles per second. Sunspots are caused by the sun’s magnetic field becoming twisted, and the twisting dynamic produces something known as a coronal mass ejection (CME). These coronal mass ejections contain billions and billions of tons of gases bursting with X-rays and ultraviolet radiation. Not something you want to be on the receiving end of.
How hot are these sun flare gases? Mind boggling hot, around 100,000,000C to be exact. The particles can also cause magnetic storms, which in extreme cases have been known to disrupt satellites and electricity grids. In 1989, a coronal mass ejection was held responsible for leaving six million people in Quebec, Canada without power.
While the sun may seem like a harmless object in the daytime sky to most observers, its power should not be underestimated under any circumstances. While there is not much we can directly do to avoid being hit by a massive solar flare, we can still raise awareness on the subject to work on developing technology that can withstand (to a point) some of the devastating impact one of these CME’s can have on our society. It seems to me that this is not much of a mainstream issue as it should be, and with one of the hottest summers to date already underway, I think we all should start becoming a little more concerned about just how powerful the light bulb in the sky is, and what it could mean for our planet’s future.