Threat to technology as solar activity triggers geomagnetic storm

The European Space Agency reports that a Coronal Mass Ejection (CME) generated yesterday by a pair of large solar flares is likely to have struck Earth at around mid-day today.

The CME – a cloud of charged gas – was ejected from the Sun on Sunday March 4 and was associated with solar flares.

Dr Jonathan Eastwood, Research Fellow in Space and Atmospheric Physics at Imperial College London said the Earth’s magnetic field will try to deflect the solar material around the Earth.

‘There is a good chance that the protection it offers will break down in the next 24 hours, leading to a geomagnetic storm,’ said Eastwood. ‘According to the NOAA Space Weather Prediction Center, this could cause intermittent satellite navigation (GPS) and HF (high frequency) radio problems, especially in more polar regions.’

‘There are very much increased levels of ionising particles affecting spacecraft, causing permanent damage to solar arrays and also affecting on-board digital systems,’ said Dr Craig Underwood, deputy director of the Surrey Space Centre, Surrey University. ‘Aircraft may divert to routes which avoid high latitude regions – although this is a very expensive thing to do in terms of fuel usage, and is rarely necessary as the Earth’s atmosphere gives a very large measure of protection.’

The Met Office, working with British Geological Survey, are said to have provided advice on the nature of the event so that government and industry can take steps to mitigate the potential impacts of the storm.

‘The impact of this will mainly be in terms of a geomagnetic storm on Earth and we understand some airlines may re-direct flights from polar routes and that the power supply industry may take routine mitigation steps,’ said Mark Gibbs, a space weather expert at the Met Office.

The European Space Agency reports that the Venus Express spacecraft, now orbiting Venus and much closer to the Sun than Earth, was affected by the radiation on 7 March.

The startracker cameras that help Venus Express measure its position and orientation in space were ‘blinded’ starting at 01:41 GMT.