8 March 2012 – No, not the long-threatened return of 70s leg-wear, though it will be received with as mixed a welcome.
The Earth’s magnetic field is currently being bombarded by the largest solar storm for the last five years, the result of two unusually large solar flares within an hour of each other around midnight on Tuesday (6 March). These generated a Coronal Mass Ejection (CME), a huge cloud of high-energy charged particles (plasma) blasted into space that reached Earth around midday today.
The resultant geomagnetic storm could affect satellites and (more positively) trigger spectacular auroral displays to the north, though effects at ground level are likely to be limited. ESA report that the storm has already affected its Venus Express spacecraft, taking out its startracker cameras.
It seems hardly any time since we were reporting the last such solar flare-triggered storm on 25 January. This is to be expected as we head towards a predicted peak in solar activity in 2013 or 2014, though the current solar cycle has been relatively quiet. That’s not to say there won’t be any large events, but it’s unlikely we’ll see anything on the scale of the great solar storm of September 1859 which shorted telegraph wires, setting off fires in Europe and North America.
Get involved – You can help spot and track solar storms at Solar Stormwatch, a joint web project of the Royal Observatory Greenwich, Zooniverse and Rutherford Appleton Laboratory. If you get involved your work will help give astronauts an early warning if dangerous solar radiation is headed their way – and you could make a new scientific discovery.