Solar particles behind dangerous space weather traced to Sun’s atmosphere for first time

Solar storm could cause ‘catastrophic damage’ to UK

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Despite being more than 93 million miles away, bouts of solar activity can have a disastrous effect on the planet. When the Sun spews charged solar particles in our direction, these can disrupt satellite operations, cause tech blackouts and affect power grids. Minor solar storms – such as one that happened this week – typically go unnoticed by most.

But there have been instances in the past when a major solar storm dealt a dire blow to the world’s technological infrastructure.

In 1859, for instance, the so-called Carrington Event brought down telegraph lines across Europe and Northern America, started a number of fires from sparkling electrical equipment and caused auroras to appear as far south as Texas and Florida.

Another Carrington-level storm narrowly missed our planet in 2012 and it would have likely been disastrous to our tech-dependant world.

An international team of scientists including researchers from University College London (UCL) has now determined where these charged particles originate from, hoping the discovery could help us better understand and prepare for the phenomenon.

In a study published in Science Advances, the researchers have analysed the composition of these particles and found their matching “fingerprint”.

The experts determined the particles match the plasma – ionised gas made up of positively and negatively charged particles – in the Sun’s corona.

More specifically, the particles come from the Sun’s chromosphere, the middle region of the Sun’s atmosphere.

The researchers also found the charged particles originate from a different place than the slow-moving solar winds churned out by the Sun.

Dr Stephanie Yardley of the UCL Mullard Space Science Laboratory (MSSL), said: “In our study we have observed for the first time exactly where solar energetic particles come from on the Sun.

Observatory captures INTENSE solar storm

“Our evidence supports theories that these highly charged particles originate from plasma that has been held down low in the Sun’s atmosphere by strong magnetic fields.

“These energetic particles, once released, are then accelerated by eruptions that travel at a speed of a few thousand kilometres a second.”

The particles arrive near Earth at breakneck speeds, in a matter of minutes to hours.

Some of the events can also last as long as several days.

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Dr Yardley said: “Currently, we can only provide forecasts of these events as they are taking place, as it is highly challenging to predict these events before they occur.

“By understanding the Sun’s processes better we can improve forecasts so that, when a major solar storm hits, we have time to act to reduce risks.”

According to Dr David Brooks from George Mason University in the US, the study’s lead author, we are now entering a new solar cycle.

And with tools like the European Space Agency’s (ESA’s) Solar Orbiter and the NASA Parker Solar Probe, scientists will get to learn more about the solar phenomena than ever before.

The Solar Orbiter, in particular, will be the first probe to observe and study the Sun’s polar regions.

A scientist involved in the mission told the spacecraft is equipped with 10 state-of-the-art instruments that will help us unravel the fundamental physics behind the Sun heliosphere. 

In particular, scientists hope to learn more about coronal mass ejections (CMES) – large expulsions of material from the Sun.

Dr Andrzej Fludra from RAL Space at the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory (RAL) said: “Once we understand how these mass ejections are originated, how they travel, also how the solar winds behave and, better still, how phenomena on the Sun are actually launched.

“Once the science is understood it will be helpful to the space weather community to inform them and impart that knowledge to them, so they can then make better predictions of these space weather events.”

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