A solar storm is caused by a solar flare unleashed by the sun. Solar flares are ranked by scientists into class A, B C, M or X based on their severity (class A being the least severe and class X being the most severe). The solar flare that occurred on Wednesday of last week was classified as class X.
These solar flares send a burst of energy which consists mainly of charged particles. This energy burst is called a coronal mass ejection or CME. The cloud of charged particles can travel at speeds up to 5,000,000 miles per hour. The CME hit Earth’s atmosphere last Thursday at approximately 6 am. When sent towards the Earth, the CME can cause a geomagnetic storm on Earth.
A geomagnetic storm causes an increase in movement of plasma through the magnetosphere and an increase in the electrical current in the magnetosphere and ionosphere. The ionosphere is where all of the Earth’s satellites are located. As a result, this would have a clear effect on the function of the satellites.
However, prior to the storm, Harlan Spence, Director of the Institute for the Study of Earth, Ocean, and Space at the University of New Hampshire, reassured that “Nothing dangerous is going to happen on the planet.”
After the storm, scientists determined that the geomagnetic storm was not as severe as scientists predicted and did not impact the magnetic field to the extent expected.
Regardless, many precautions were taken by space stations in order to prevent damage or injury. Firstly, the space stations made sure that every astronaut and scientist was safe from the solar radiation storms, also caused by solar flares. The magnetosphere and ionosphere prevent the majority of the solar radiation from hitting the Earth. However, astronauts in space are in danger of exposure. Once exposed, the radiation can cause a change in the genetic make-up of someone and result in permanent chromosomal damage. This can further cause a cancerous growth in the exposed body.
In the past, solar storms have been much more dangerous. In 1989, the sun emitted enough radiation that if an astronaut was exposed to this, they would immediately be killed by its severity.
However, scientists have reassured that the current solar storm and its aftershocks will not be as severe.
Image of a solar flare. Retrieved from Google Image Search