Science News: Solar flares, coronal mass ejections, and the risk to modern space and surface infrastructure

– C.C., Editor

It was recently reported that 40 SpaceX Starlink Internet satellites were lost, the cause of which was a geomagnetic storm resulting from solar wind interacting with the Earth’s magnetosphere. While this loss constitutes a minor setback for the planned Starlink network, it is also indicative of a greater risk posed to modern infrastructure by solar activity.

Coronal mass ejections(CMEs) are a type of solar activity characterized by a significant release of plasma and associated magnetic field from the sun, into the solar wind. CMEs are associated with solar flares, and while most either do not reach the Earth or do not strike it directly, those that do are known to have the potential to damage communications infrastructure and electrical grids.

The most powerful such event recorded in history, called the Carrington Event occurred in 1859, and caused the failure of telegraph systems across Europe and North America, with some telegraph operators even reportedly receiving electrical shocks. More recent examples include the March 1989 geomagnetic storm which caused significant blackouts and disrupted communications in both the military and civilian sectors, and the 2003 Halloween solar storms which caused many similar issues and notably caused damage to and temporary malfunctions of various satellites.

Future events are a certainty, eventually matching or even exceeding the intensity of the aforementioned Carrington Event. Such an event is estimated to be able to potentially cause billions of dollars of damage. As such, prediction of the arrival of CMEs can be crucial, and researchers have indicated both the necessity of generating deeper insight with respect to this, and the current challenges associated with such predictions. Hopefully, this most recent incident involving the SpaceX Starlink satellites will generate increased attention to damage mitigation strategies for the future.

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