Three bursts of super-hot plasma shot out from the sun are hitting Earth’s magnetic field right now, causing a relatively rare “severe” or “G4″ solar storm and potentially creating some brilliant auroras for people on (and off) the planet. The storm is as intense as…
Three bursts of super-hot plasma shot out from the sun are hitting Earth’s magnetic field right now, causing a relatively rare “severe” or “G4″ solar storm and potentially creating some brilliant auroras for people on (and off) the planet. The storm is as intense as the March 2015 St. Patrick’s Day solar storm, which supercharged auroras for skywatchers in northern parts of the United States.
Skywatchers in Europe and the U.S. should be on the lookout for the northern lights Monday night and early Tuesday morning, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Space Weather Prediction Center (SWPC).
The geomagnetic storm could cause strong auroras as far south as the Canadian border with the U.S., but it’s possible that the beautiful phenomenon will be visible well south of there. The best viewing conditions will be away from city lights, with clear skies, looking toward the north.
NASA astronaut Scott Kelly posted two photos of gorgeous red and green aurora shining above the Earth from his spot on the International Space Station Monday.
The storm was classified at the G4 level at about 2:58 p.m. EDT, about 20 minutes after the bursts of hot plasma starting impacting Earth. The solar tempest became “severe” when the storm hit an 8 on a 9-point-scale designed to measure the disturbances in Earth’s magnetic field. The storm should continue at some level for a number of hours, according to the SWPC.
Solar storms of the G4 magnitude (the scale goes up to G5) can cause widespread problems with the electrical grid on Earth and interfere with some types of aircraft radio transmissions. These kinds of storms can also increase the drag on satellites in low-Earth orbit, possibly meaning that mission controllers will need to make course corrections, the SWCP said. In addition, the surfaces of spacecraft could become charged, potentially affecting the operation of the craft.
This solar storm is being caused by three coronal mass ejections — bursts of hot plasma shot from the sun — that met up in space today.
All three CMEs were shot out from the same region of the sun, a sunspot region called 12371. One ejection was flung into space on June 18, with another occurring a day later. The most recent CME erupted from the sun on June 21 and is moving more quickly than either of the other two Earth-directed bursts of plasma, a cosmic coincidence that has them all impacting Earth’s magnetic field at about the same time.
This sunspot region isn’t done yet. Active Region 12371 shot out yet another flare with an associated CME that scientists will monitor in order to see if it could affect Earth
The SWPC was originally predicting that, on Monday, the storm could reach G3 level — a “strong” solar storm that could create brilliant auroras but also may interfere with satellites in space. But the SWPC updated their prediction to G4 level after the solar weather-measuring ACE spacecraft was hit by the CME earlier on Monday.
This event is not the strength of a nightmare solar storm scenario that space weather specialists have been warning about for years. An extremely intense solar storm could cause broad shutdowns to the electrical grid, wreak havoc on radio communications, and disable GPS devices and aerial navigation systems, costing billions in damage.
Auroras are created when charged particles in space interact with Earth’s magnetic field, exciting neutrally charged particles in Earth’s upper atmosphere. Once agitated, these particles glow red, green, purple and other colors depending on the types of elements excited in the atmosphere.
The northern and southern lights are difficult to see unless you go to a darkened area in the high latitudes, but sometimes, big geomagnetic storms can create visible auroras in lower latitudes as well.
The SWPC has a 30-minute aurora forecast tool to help people more easily see when and where auroras are expected to become active.