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The sun sinks below the horizon. The serenity of night draws near. Soon, the Earth will turn in harmony with the cosmos. But not necessarily in harmony with our star.
The sun is sending us ominous warnings… that we ignore at our peril. A roiling deep within… energy building in its outer zones… an eruption gathering force.
We are getting better and better at reading the flare-ups… the waves… and the spots that emerge on the Sun’s surface. But our increasingly technological society has exposed us as never before to its angry moods. Where will you be during the next attack of the Sun?
The wake-up call arrived in the year 2003. With Halloween approaching… a truly scary chain of events overtook our solar system. 93 million miles away… the sun began to vent its rage.
On its surface, dark regions, called sunspots, appeared unexpectedly… a sign of rising tension within. It had been three and a half years since the sun last erupted in fury…at the peak of an 11-year cycle of solar flare-ups.
Back then, we got ready for it… by shutting down satellites that were vulnerable to high levels of radiation. No one expected this. The sun erupted in a series of massive explosions, called coronal mass ejections, or CMEs.
Vast electrified gas clouds raced outward. Solar telescopes recorded the action…The largest emission of solar x-rays ever seen. Flares reaching tens of thousands of miles into space.
And a wave of charged particles traveling at 8 million kilometers per hour. The sun became a giant plasma weapon… more potent than any in science fiction… and pointed right at our home planet. On Earth… the Halloween storms produced some of the most spectacular auroras ever seen at the north and south poles.
They occur when a wave of charged particles from the Sun interacts with Earth’s magnetic field in the outer regions of the atmosphere. Beautiful and awe inspiring, they were once identified as the dancing of spirits… or as signs from God.
But as lovely a lightshow as this is, it means there are kilovolts of electricity in the air, looking for places to get down to the Earth. The Halloween solar storms brought jolts of electricity that impacted power grids around the world.
In space, they damaged 28 communications satellites, and destroyed two. A newly installed GPS-based air navigation system went down for 30 hours. This energetic surge did not stop there.
Sweeping past Mars, it was so strong that it burned out the radiation monitor aboard the spacecraft, Mars Global Surveyor. Ironically, this instrument was designed to study radiation that human explorers might encounter on future missions beyond Earth. Months later, the same rush of solar energy washed over the two Voyager spacecraft, on their way to the far reaches of the solar system.
Coronal Mass Ejections like this have been known to blast their way out to the far edges of the solar system, where the solar wind meets the flow of particles around the galaxy itself.