A huge solar eruption may be headed toward the Earth

A geomagnetic storm could probably arrive on June 29th.
Ameya Paleja
Artist's representation of a coronal mass ejectionLV4260/ iStock

Astronomers have noticed a massive solar eruption but are not very sure if it is headed towards the Earth, Newsweek reported

Over the past few weeks, the solar surface has had some interesting activity. Sunspot AR3038, which is facing the Earth and was expected to die, has instead become larger and is now three times the size of the Earth. Astronomers have been waiting for solar flares to erupt from this sunspot. 

However, what has occurred instead is a coronal mass ejection or CME, which is much more powerful than a solar flare since it is packed with large amounts of plasma and magnetic flux. The only issue is that the CME isn't from Sunspot AR3038. Instead, astronomers do not really know where it came from. 

How do we know if there was a CME? 

The eruption was spotted on Sunday by a CME spotting software from the European Space Agency's (ESA) tool called Computer Aided CME Tracking (CACTus). According to the tool's website, the algorithm works autonomously. It uses data from the Large Angle and Spectrometric Coronagraph Experiment (LASCO), a collaboration between the ESA and NASA to study the Sun. 

Since CACTus' list of CME is automatically generated, astronomers use other instruments looking at the Sun to confirm the events. One such instrument is NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory (SDO), which even brought us images of sunspot AR3038, last week. 

Unfortunately, a widespread power shutdown at Stanford University, where SDO's instruments store data, has been unavailable. This has made it difficult to ascertain the exact location of the CME eruption and whether it is headed towards Earth. 

What happens next? 

Unlike solar flares that can cause short-duration radio blackouts, CMEs can cause massive outages since the magnetic forces in the eruption interact with the Earth's own magnetic field. 

A geomagnetic storm caused by a CME can cause entire electrical grids to collapse and interfere with radio communication for days. Even navigational systems can be majorly affected after high-energy CMEs. Fortunately, these storms occur rarely.  

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Solar flares travel rapidly and if directed towards the Earth, within minutes. A CME, though can take days before it hits the Earth. So, the eruption noticed on the solar surface on Sunday could reach Earth by June 28th or June 29th, astronomers told Newsweek. 

With the SDO offline, astronomers now need to look at other coronograph-capable instruments to determine with the eruption is headed towards the Earth or not. Factors such as the positioning of these instruments could significantly impact the calculations done with these instruments. 

The only solace that astronomers now have is that even if the CME was directed toward Earth, it might not be powerful enough to cause widespread outrages. However, it stresses how critical instruments need to be online at all times, for you never know when a solar storm can hit you. 

With the Sun now in an active phase of its solar cycle, the lesser the downtime, the better prepared we will be. 

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