A solar storm heading for Earth could disrupt radio and GPS signals

Minor disruptions ahead.
Ameya Paleja
Solar flares headed towards Earthsolarseven/iStock

Navigation and radio devices could face brief blackouts as a solar storm is headed straight toward Earth.

With the Sun now nearing the peak of its 11-year solar cycle, solar activity is expected to increase, and so are chances of solar flares and coronal mass ejections (CMEs) that could send some rough space weather into the Earth's orbit.

Astronomers have been looking keenly at the Sun to see which regions of the Sun are experiencing changes in their magentic flux and closely following them to determine if they result in a solar flare or subside without making much difference to space weather. 

Sunspots, sun filaments, and prominence

Last week, the dynamics on the solar surface took a new turn when sunspots that were gradually increasing in size took the shape of sun filaments. Each filament was as long as the distance between the Earth and the Moon. Known as highly unstable, these filaments held on for a few days before falling apart earlier this week and sending a solar flare directly toward Earth. 

Astronomers also spotted a prominence on the Sun, a phenomenon that is also a regularity on the solar surface but does not lead to a solar flare. 

A solar prominence remains anchored to the Sun and does not result in bad solar weather. The solar flare, though, isn't that generous and can get really nasty, especially for spacecraft that do not have the protection of the multiple layers of Earth's atmosphere.

Earlier this year, Elon Musk's SpaceX lost 40 satellites, which had barely reached their orbits. Astronomers have found that increased solar activity could send other smaller satellites (CubeSats) out of their orbits as much as ten times faster, than they usually would, Evening Standard revealed.

What to expect in the next few days?

The breaking filament has also sent a CME toward Earth, which is approaching rather slowly, Spaceweather.com reported. It is expected to arrive either on July 20th or 21st. Highly charged particles in the CMEs and solar flares can ionize the upper layers of the atmosphere that we use for GPS and radio communication. Therefore, radio blackouts are the most common effect of solar activity. 

According to the Space Weather Prediction Center of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Adminstration, a G1-class geomagnetic storm was observed in the past 24 hours, and it is likely to occur again on July 21st and 22nd. During this period, weak power fluctuation may be observed on electrical grids, while auroras will also be visible at high latitudes. 

These predictions are based on mathematical models that astronomers have created after studying decades of solar data. However, these methods are not 100 percent accurate and solar weather can vary from these predictions. Recently, a geomagnetic storm caused by factors that are not usually observed by scientific instruments hit the Earth at a million miles an hour.

Beyond preparing for an eventuality of a radio blackout, there is little we can do for now, if the space weather turns bad. 

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