The Sun Hates Satellites

by James Downie | June 8, 2011

Earlier today, the Sun (aka el sol, Helios, or "that big bright thing that makes other stuff turn funny colors after you look away from it") stunned scientists with its latest solar flare. More specifically, the solar flare, despite only being of medium intensity, sent perhaps the largest amount of solar material into space ever recorded. "A mushroom of cooled plasma popped like a pimple," wrote National Geographic, sending plasma spraying upwards, before the material settled back over approximately half the surface area of the sun. (You can should watch the video here.) Simultaneously, the sun also ejected a mass of solar particles into space. Fortunately for homo sapiens, that "coronal mass ejection," as such events are called, will miss Earth, preserving the many communications and military satellites vulnerable to solar blasts. But the satellites' owners shouldn't rest easy; the sun, it seems, is just getting started.

Scientists have known for some time that the sun has an eleven year cycle of solar activity, but the extremes of each cycle vary from cycle to cycle, and some experts believe that the next maximum of solar activity, set for 2013 or 2014, could be one of the strongest ever. With more and more satellites in orbit, and with more and more terrestrial electronic grids a space storm could send haywire, the economic cost could be staggering. A 2009 report from the National Academy of Sciences calculated that the next round of solar activity could lead to storms of similar intensity to the 1859 Carrington Superflare, a storm so strong that it shorted out telegraph systems around the world and created brilliant auroras even close to the equator.. If such a storm were to occur, the report says, the estimated economic damage would be $1 to $2 trillion--yes, trillion--and require four to ten years for recovery. On the bright side, at least post-2012 doomsday cults won't lack for signs of the apocalypse.

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