The world will have a 30 minute warning when a once-in-a-century solar 'superstorm' strikes the Earth knocking out major communic...

Solar Maximum 2013

The world will have a 30 minute warning when a once-in-a-century solar 'superstorm' strikes the Earth knocking out major communications, scientists revealed.

Superstorms occur every 200 years, with the last storm striking in 1859, and scientists are preparing for the event which could paralyze communications networks including GPS and mobile phones.

The news comes as it is revealed a new body of space experts is needed to help protect Britain from the storm. The Royal Academy of Engineering has said that the massive radiation blast is inevitable and that the Government should set up a UK Space Weather Board.

The quango would lead and supervise government strategy for coping with the Sun storm that could trigger black-outs, knock out one in 10 satellites, and disrupt aircraft and shipping navigation.

Although solar weather events happen on a regular basis, the Earth has not experienced a superstorm since the start of the space age.

On that occasion, Earth was hit by a tidal wave of energetic particles following a large solar flare. Induced currents caused by the blast sent sparks flying from telegraph pylons and caused fires.

Around the world, night skies were lit up by magnificent aurora displays. But at that time there were no satellites in orbit or sensitive microchips in the path of the particles.

Experts now warn that another solar superstorm on the scale of the Carrington event is 'inevitable' and Britain should be prepared.

Professor Paul Cannon, who chaired the Academy's working group on extreme solar weather, said: 'The two challenges for government are the wide spectrum of technologies affected today and the emergence of unexpected vulnerabilities as technology evolves.

'The Academy recommends that government sets up a Space Weather Board to oversee these issues across government departments.

'Our message is: Don't panic, but do prepare - a solar superstorm will happen one day and we need to be ready for it.'

Around one in 10 orbiting satellites could be knocked out for days during a superstorm event, said the report. Those that keep operating would be aged 'enormously', making it necessary for many to be replaced.

GPS signals would be interrupted one to three days after the storm hit as satellite transmissions to the ground are disrupted. As a result sat-nav systems would be rendered inoperable.

Navigating officers in aircraft and ships would temporarily have to revert to old-fashioned 'dead reckoning', said Prof Cannon. His advice to motorists was 'make sure you continue to keep a map in your car'.

Energetic particles penetrating lower levels of the atmosphere could also interfere with aircraft electronics.

Space engineer Keith Ryden, from the University of Surrey, another member of the working group, said: 'The most likely scenario is that data elements get corrupted. It's possible that individual chips could fail. The systems are designed to cope with a certain amount of failure.

'What would be of concern is if we had multiple failures for the pilot to deal with so he becomes overloaded.'

But he added: 'We're not talking about aircraft dropping out of the sky.'

Other effects of a solar superstorm would be to send large induced currents through the electricity grid network, potentially knocking out central transformers and causing blackouts.

For passengers on high flying aircraft, a superstorm would also deliver a radiation dose equivalent to three CT scans. This would still be below harmful levels, said the experts - but astronauts aboard the International Space Station could be at risk.

A solar superstorm would have proved lethal for the Apollo astronauts had one occurred when they were on the Moon.

Currently an ageing satellite called Advanced Composition Explorer (ACE) provides around 15 minutes warning of a Coronal Mass Ejection (CME) - a huge plasma cloud of charged particles that causes the most damage during a solar storm.

Scientists are concerned about what will happen if Ace fails. A replacement for Ace, called Discover, is due to be launched by the American space agency Nasa in 2014.



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