The largest batch of solar flares may have passed, however, officials at the U.S. space agency NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) continue to express concerns that an even more powerful wave of solar storms could present problems.
In a statement released Saturday, NOAA warned that a pair of solar flares that erupted from the sun on Saturday could continue through the weekend, blasting streams of plasma and charged particles into space.
The outbursts were both categorized as M-class solar flares. They exploded from the surface of the sun at 12:27 a.m. ET and 12:44 p.m. ET, according to NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland.
The warning comes as reports that continue solar flare activity could present problems for the 2012 London Olympics. Scientists in the U.K. warn that a perfect storm of charged particles could hinder electrical grids in the city, possibly bringing the world’s largest sporting event to a halt.
The warning comes as the sun continues to eject massive amounts of charged particles. On Tuesday, two powerful X-class eruptions triggered the strongest solar storm in eight years, according to solar physicists at the Space Weather Prediction Center, which is operated as part of the NOAA and the National Weather Service.
Officials watching the massive coronal mass ejection (CME) say that the full force of event should reach Earth early Sunday.
NASA’s Space Weather Center models measure the CME traveling at speeds of over 700 miles per second. The CME should reach Earth’s magnetosphere, the protective envelope of magnetic fields around the planet, early in the morning of March 11.
“This most recent solar event could cause more geomagnetic storming beginning as early as Saturday evening going into Sunday, but impacts are likely to be minor,” NOAA officials added in a posting on its Facebook page.
The agency noted that it would continue to monitor the situation, adding that its “analysis continues to estimate what impact [the March 10 flare] could have on Earth.”
The solar storms could be the worst to hit Earth since 2006. They are expected to rate a G3 for geomagnetic storms, and S4 for solar radiation, on NOAA’s scale for storm strength. The scale runs from G1 to G5 for geomagnetism and S1 to S5 for solar radiation.
“This makes me think of the Halloween storms of 2003 where we had about a week-and-a-half’s worth of strong active regions that were continually erupting,” said NOAA officials.
For stargazers the major outburst could provide a rare light show. The Northern Lights could be visible in the lower 48 states with a possibility for people in the Great Lakes to see them, according to NASA.
The massive outburst have caused concern among scientists examining the event. Officials at both NASA and NOAA warn that major disruptions could occur, including those requiring GPS and satellite communication. They can also spread colourful aurora light displays further than usual, as the latest storm did, leaving stargazers with unprecedented light shows.
While it remains unclear exactly what effect the particles will have on technology, the latest solar flare event has increased focus on exactly how well prepared the U.S. is for such a bombardment.
The single U.S. satellite providing the only advance warning of incoming high-energy solar particles is likely to face retirement in the near future, and is possibly on its last legs, according to researchers. NASA’s Advanced Composition Explorer, or ACE, satellite is at least two years away, they say, adding that U.S. policy makers should consider a replacement.
With policy makers considering additional spending cuts, however, another satellite is highly unlikely. That said, in 2018, NASA is scheduled to launch a spacecraft from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida to fly, Icarus-like, dangerously close to the sun. The probe would the first of its kind and could yield surprising results, according scientists working on the project.
Scientists have sent probes to the solar system’s edge, but never so near its heart. Coming within 3.7 million miles of the sun’s surface — 25 times closer than Earth — the 1,350-pound unmanned spacecraft will heat to 2,600 degrees Fahrenheit and endure 512 times the sunlight of vessels orbiting Earth. It is expected to make its first approach from that distance in 2024.
It remains unclear how long the solar storms will persist. NASA scientists say they expect the solar flares to continue bombarding Earth at least throughout the year.