An unexpected solar storm in 2003 disrupted hundreds of flights around the world, causing spacecraft controllers to lose track of satellites in low-Earth orbit for days and cutting power to tens of thousands of people in Sweden. Now, nearly 20 years later, one of the world’s leading space weather forecasters admits that our living star can still catch us off guard.
October 2003 was a quiet month for NOAA’s Space Weather Prediction Center (SWPC).sleepy sun is moving towards its minimum 11 year cycle activities that produce a mediocre 100 sunspot a month. Within a week, everything changed.The sun erupted with the largest sunspot cluster in more than 10 years and hit Earth with a barrage of flares and plasma eruptions, unleashing the most ferocious space weather events in recent history.
“I vividly remember that week in October,” Bill Murtagh, the NOAA SWPC program coordinator who was a space weather forecaster at the time, told Space.com. “Partly because it’s my birthday, but mostly because the sun is really unremarkable. We don’t know what’s going to happen in a week.”
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The event has since gone down in history halloween sun storm, not even the worst thing the sun can do.In fact, the 2003 storm released only one-tenth the energy of the two most powerful solar storms on record—the so-called Carrington Incident The storm of 1859 and the New York railroad storm of 1921 disrupted telegraph service around the world.
Things have changed since that storm. The telegraph is now a thing of the past, but many of the new technologies we increasingly rely on are equally vulnerable to space weather outbreaks. The problem, Murtagh said, is that space weather forecasters are only marginally better at predicting these storms than they were in 2003.
“We actually identify space weather in some of our homeland security documents as one of only a few threats that could have a national or even global impact,” Mertag said. “It’s kind of like a pandemic. We’ve seen what happened with the pandemic.”
didn’t see it coming
What happened during that fateful week in 2003 when the sun went from quiet to frantic without warning? It spins on its axis, as it has done over the years, revealing a sunspot cluster 13 times the size of Earth that must have been brewing out of the observer’s field of view for quite some time.
Sunspots are the cooler regions of the sun’s surface where the magnetic field of the star is distorted so much that the magnetic field lines eventually break, resulting in solar flareThe plasma form is coronal mass ejection (CME).
Once the October 2003 sunspot took aim at Earth, 17 solar flares and CMEs occurred, causing widespread radio blackouts and geomagnetic storms. Earth’s atmosphere.
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During that week, 59 percent of NASA’s space missions “experienced an impact,” according to NOAA report (opens in new tab). Japan’s Advanced Earth Observation Satellite 2 lost contact with ground control during the storm and never recovered. US Space Surveillance Network, which monitors objects in space, Completely lost track of all satellites and space debris low earth orbit In the past few days. Parts of the planet have experienced radio and GPS blackouts, costing airlines financially and having to reroute hundreds of flights. In the Swedish city of Malmö, a high-voltage transmission line failed; a subsequent hour-long blackout trapped people in elevators and kept trains on tracks.
“Over the course of these two weeks, we had what I usually call the Great Awakening,” said Mertag, who later led a team investigating the impact of the event’s wide-ranging NOAA report. “There are a lot of different sectors that are suddenly affected and interested in our alert.”
Do we know better?
Fast forward almost 20 years. The sun keeps spinning around its axis, and space weather forecasters still know very little about what’s going on on the side facing away from Earth.
By monitoring visible sunspots, they can get a rough idea of how likely a solar flare, or CME, is.However, they have no way of knowing the exact timing and intensity of the impending eruption, and have only limited predictions of its impact Earth.
The chaos of the Halloween storm is caused by solar flares and CME. Both phenomena originate in sunspots, when the twisting magnetic field in these regions breaks and reconnects. The two often go hand in hand, but arrive on Earth on different timescales.
“Solar flares are electromagnetic radiation, essentially light, including visible light and all other wavelengths, including gamma rays and radio frequencies,” said Juha Pekka Lutama, head of space weather at the center European Space Agency (ESA) told Space.com. “The moment we see it, it’s already affecting Earth’s ionosphere and causing damage.”
Radiation from solar flares ‘ionises upper atmosphere above 80km [50 miles]”It excites the atoms and molecules there, which affects everything from [GPS and GNSS] satellite. If you have a GPS or GNSS receiver, then you will see navigation errors because the characteristics of the upper atmosphere have changed. “
Solar flares come in different intensities, the most powerful being classified as X-flares. The intensity of the flare is further specified by a number, with each successive number representing a multiple of the base intensity.During the Halloween storm, the sun shines Record-breaking X28 flarethe most powerful measurement ever made, where, According to NASA (opens in new tab), temporarily overloaded satellite sensors. That flare knocked out GPS systems in North America for several hours, Luntama said. According to NOAA, the positioning errors of GPS-based navigation systems used in aviation are so great that the system is completely unusable.
While the effects of solar flares immediately affect Earth’s daytime, CMEs that often arise from the sun during the same magnetic field line bursts give space weather forecasters some time to prepare.
“In a worst-case scenario, the effects of a solar flare would last for a few hours,” Rentama said. “Conditions return to normal, then the CME arrives, and the geomagnetic storm starts. So there’s the first hit, and then there’s a little gap. Then there’s another hit. They’re all from the same solar event.”
It will take up to three days for the CME to reach Earth.In some cases, the direction of their magnetic field is such that they are Earth’s Magnetic Shield And no geomagnetic storms occurred.
NOAA Deep Space Climate Observatory, or DSCOVR, is located about 1 million miles (1.5 million kilometers) from Earth and provides the Sun with an early warning of the intensity of an upcoming geomagnetic storm about an hour before the CME reaches Earth. However, the Halloween storm produced such a strong CME that its effects were evident almost as soon as it erupted from the sun.
“What happened on October 28 was so impressive that we knew the impact long before it arrived [DSCOVR]”We’re actually predicting the most extreme geomagnetic storms,” Murta said. [directly] Eruption from the sun. That’s probably the only time we’ve ever done that. “
Despite decades of research, scientists still know very little about the complexities of the sun’s activity and the space weather it produces. Murtagh acknowledged that while severe solar storms are on the list of dangerous events that could have nationwide impacts in many countries, progress in mitigating the possible consequences has not been as fast as it should have been. However, he said awareness has increased and policies have been put in place to minimise disruption.
“There’s no question that we’re better now in many ways than we were,” Mertag said. “For example, in the energy sector, the U.S. government requires businesses involved in power transmission to conduct vulnerability assessments of their equipment to these geomagnetic storms and take measures. On the other hand, there are new issues now, such as with new satellite mega-constellations.”
An incident in February 2022 demonstrated the magnitude of the problems that space weather can pose for satellite operators: SpaceX lost a brand new batch of Starlink satellites After launching them into a mild geomagnetic storm. Disturbances in the upper atmosphere caused the satellite to lose altitude and crash.Other carriers have also been reporting The problem of maintaining the altitude of satellites in low earth orbit.
Murtagh acknowledged that a storm the size of a Carrington event or even a Halloween storm would wreak havoc on satellites today, and it could still arrive without warning like the October 2003 CME and solar flare.In the future, space weather forecasting will become a little easier, as a new mission called vigil (opens in new tab)which will be launched by the European Space Agency in 2025, will finally allow forecasters to “turn a corner” to observe what is happening on the not-yet-visible side of the sun.
“This mission will be a huge development that will help us avoid being caught off guard like we were in 2003,” Mertag said. “It will also help us see the CME from the side as it leaves the sun and toward Earth. It will help us improve tracking,” as well as predictions of future space weather events.