Wednesday 19 June 2019

A devastating solar storm which could wipe out power on Earth is 'a matter of when, not if' - scientists

The ESA's solar orbiter
The ESA's solar orbiter

Sarah Knapton

A devastating solar storm which could wipe out communications on Earth and fry power grids is a matter of 'when not if' the head of the British Met Office's Space Weather Monitoring centre has warned.

Extreme space weather has already caused widespread disruption, with a geomagnetic storm leaving six million people without power in 1989, while Apollo astronauts narrowly missed being exposed to deadly radiation in 1972 and solar flares in 2003 forced the crew of the International Space Station to take cover.

The largest solar storm ever recorded, The Carrington Event in 1859, knocked out telegraph systems and even set fire to paper in offices.

To help forecast such devastating phenomena the European Space Agency is launching the Solar Orbiter probe in 2020 to monitor the Sun, and yesterday unveiled the spacecraft at Airbus ahead of a year of testing in Germany.

Catherine Burnett, head of the UK Met Office's Space Weather Monitoring Unit said: "The threat of space weather to national infrastructure, industry and the wider public is such that... there is a need for forecasting to try to mitigate that risk.

"We're looking for solar flares which can knock out high frequency telecommunications, coronal mass ejections which have the potential to take out our power grids and solar radiation which impact satellite communications systems and GPS.

"We think that the big solar incidents, like the Carrington Event, happen between 1 in 100 or 1 in 200 years so it is a case of 'when, not if' we have one."

Solar Orbiter will provide close-up views of the Sun's polar regions, tracking solar storms and the solar wind . (© Daily Telegraph, London)

Irish Independent

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