Ten years ago this week, Earth’s technology was under attack. Powerful magnetic storms on the Sun bombarded our planet with radiation and charged particles. The attack damaged satellites, required airlines to reroute flights, caused some nuclear power plants to scale back operations, and briefly blacked out parts of Sweden.
October 2003 started quietly. It was several years past the last peak in the Sun’s cycle of magnetic activity, so there were almost no storms on the Sun. By late in the month, though, three giant clusters of sunspots were crawling across it. They spawned powerful explosions known as solar flares, and expelled clouds of charged particles that raced across the solar system at five million miles an hour.
Over a three-week period, dozens of satellites and deep-space probes were interrupted or damaged, and one was destroyed. Astronauts took shelter in the most heavily shielded section of the International Space Station. Airlines re-routed flights over the North Pole to avoid high doses of radiation. And many power grids in North America and elsewhere suffered minor problems, such as damaged transformers.
The biggest power problem came around Malmö, Sweden. On October 30th, the storms knocked out power to about 50,000 residents.
The Sun is right at the peak of its current magnetic cycle, which so far has been quiet. But the events of 2003 show that the Sun can strike at any time.
We’ll talk about another attack on Earth tomorrow.
Script by Damond Benningfield, Copyright 2013
For more skywatching tips, astronomy news, and much more, read StarDate magazine.