Washington…and All of Earth Just Dodged a Bullet
A bit of an anomaly caught the eyes of NASA solar science specialists yesterday.
Upon closer review, it would seem that we are all quite lucky to still live in a world powered by electricity. It all started with the GOES Proton Flux showing a surprising increase over the past day that continues to reverberate at much higher levels that anticipated.
In solar physics, a solar particle event (SPE), also known as a solar energetic particle (SEP) event or solar radiation storm, occurs when protons emitted by the Sun, mostly become accelerated either in the Sun's atmosphere during a solar flare, or in interplanetary space because of a coronal mass ejection (which is what happened two days ago). Energetic protons are a significant radiation hazard to anything in space, including satellites.
This disturbance is continuing though today, and this despite the fact that the solar flare/coronal mass ejection occurred on the opposite side of the Sun from Earth. The continued storm conditions into today are shown below.
This is an indication that something tremendous did happen. The CME that left the sun 2 days ago produced a full halo coronal mass ejection on the Soho coronographs, and was clocked at over 3000 km per second.
Had this coronal mass ejection been facing Earth, instead of the opposite direction, we would be experiencing a Carrington-level event.
The Carrington Event is the most intense geomagnetic storm in recorded history, peaking from 1 to 2 September 1859 during solar cycle 10. It created strong auroral displays that were reported globally, even seen as far south as Cuba in the western hemisphere. The coronal mass ejection caused sparking and even fires in multiple telegraph stations. The event was observed and recorded independently by British astronomers Richard Christopher Carrington and was the first records of a solar flare. If the coronal mass ejection had been aimed at us we would already be suffering powerful geomagnetic storms and possibly a grid-down scenario.
The information above is referred to as the ENLIL Spiral and shows the powerful ejection leaving the sun at a high rate of speed.
Unfortunately, we will never know the full power of this recent mass ejection, as NASA doesn't have any satellites on the far side of the sun to measure the event. However, it can be safely speculated that it was well into the "X-Class" range. As shown below, solar flares are designated according to their X-ray brightness, in the wavelength range 1 to 8 Angstroms. There are five classes of flares: A, B, C, M, and X, with A being the smallest and X being the largest. Each category also has nine subdivisions.
We are currently in solar cycle 25, i.e. the 25th since 1755, when extensive recording of solar sunspot activity began. Also, we can expect what scientists call a solar maximum come July of 2025, and therefore can expect more potential for increased solar flares as we approach that date.
As it stands, just feel fortunate that we didn't take this one on the chin, or you wouldn't be reading this right now...or anything on a computer ever again, for that matter.