Solar Flares: The Emperor Strikes Back

Published on January 27th, 2012
Solar Flares: The Emperor Strikes Back

With all this talk around solar flares and one that hit the earth this week, we thought we’d break down this natural phenomenon for you…

Solar flares are violent explosions in the sun’s atmosphere, releasing yottaJoules (1 yotta=10^24, or a million billion billion) of energy. They’re powered by the sudden release of magnetic energy stored in the sun’s corona, when plasma is heated to tens of millions of degrees Kelvin, and electrons, protons and heavy ions are sent hurtling outwards at near-light speeds, accompanied by radiation from radio waves to gamma rays.

So what would happen if a really, really big solar flare headed out way? Much like one recently did…

Picture it: A cascade of high-energy particles flies from the sun, causing problems for astronauts and space equipment. Communications equipment is disrupted, power grids are temporarily knocked out. The ozone layer suffers a bit of a beating, and a proton storm reaches Earth about two hours later, doing some minor biochemical damage to folks wandering about outdoors.

Well, that’s not completely how it happened….

Solar flares occur fairly often, usually several times a week. Very large solar flares occur about once every 11 years…

What can we do to save ourselves? Space equipment and astronauts can be protected with physical or magnetic shielding. Earthbound types who prefer not to experience pain and discomfort and a major tan should just stay indoors for a while and let it pass them by.