Solar storm disrupts communications : NPR

Residents as far south as Florida were treated to a celestial light show Friday night as a geomagnetic storm triggered an aurora and caused disruptions in satellites.


Right now in this galaxy, a major solar storm is providing a magnificent spectacle to people around the world. Social media is full of surreal and spectacular images of auroras as far south as Florida. In addition to those not-so-northern lights, this big burst of activity on the sun’s surface creates a bit of hassle for people who operate satellites. NPR science correspondent Geoff Brumfiel is here to help us understand what’s going on in space. Hi, Geoff.


DETROW: Want to talk Star Wars while we’re at it? Or let’s talk about the solar storm…

BRUMFIEL: Don’t get me started on Jar Jar Binks.

DETROW: So look, a lot of people who live in northern latitudes have seen the Northern Lights before, but this time people in Florida are posting photos. Help us understand what’s going on.

BRUMFIEL: Well, what this all boils down to is a small dot on our sun called sunspot region 3664. And by small, I mean it’s 17 times the diameter of the Earth.

DETROW: Quite small.

BRUMFIEL: It doesn’t look much in the sun. Sunspots are tangles of magnetic fields, and when they break up and unfurl, they throw particles, actually pieces of the sun, towards us. And that’s what happens: each wave of particles hits the Earth. It moves particles from our own atmosphere, creating these spectacular northern lights.

DETROW: And that’s what a lot of people focus on, but talk about the downsides.

BRUMFIEL: Yeah. So it’s obvious that fragments of the sun hitting the atmosphere can create problems. These particles are charged. They are associated with magnetic fields. And that can create oscillations in the Earth’s magnetic field, which can actually cause what’s called induction. In very long metal wires, it can create electric currents. Well, high power lines are long metal wires that stretch for several kilometers and therefore can induce currents and voltages in these lines and cause problems. Region 3664 has also produced two Class X solar flares in recent days. These flares cause problems for satellites, disrupting communications and navigation equipment. NOAA’s Space Weather Prediction Center told NPR earlier today that these are preliminary reports of power grid irregularities, loss of high-frequency communications and some GPS disruptions. But so far everything is still working fine.

DETROW: Okay. But how ? Tell us a little more about how this affects these thousands and thousands of satellites that are orbiting above us.

BRUMFIEL: Yeah. As I mentioned, this can disrupt communication with satellites. You know, the radiation itself can also damage them. But this – the other big problem is that the atmosphere can expand, causing drag, and that’s a big problem. You know, there are almost 10,000 satellites in orbit somewhere in this neighborhood today. A large portion of them are satellites from Elon Musk’s Starlink service.

Musk tweeted earlier today that these Starlink satellites are under a lot of pressure, even though they’re holding up so far. But, you know, as this continues and the pressure on these satellites increases, all of their orbits are going to change a little bit. Debris in space, their orbit will change a little bit. And so it’s going to be chaotic there at the end of the weekend. We don’t really know how it’s going to happen.

DETROW: We have about 30 seconds left. Many people here in Washington, especially with lots of clouds last night, were jealous of all these Northern Lights photos. Is there still a chance to see them?

BRUMFIEL: Yeah, absolutely. Chances are it will be strong tonight, maybe through tomorrow night as well. If you don’t see anything, here’s a tip. Try using your phone. Hold your phone to the north and take a photo. We’ve seen reports that phones pick up auroras even when the human eye can’t.

DETROW: Very good. Geoff Brumfiel, thank you very much.

BRUMFIEL: Thank you.

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Sara Adm

Aimant les mots, Sara Smith a commencé à écrire dès son plus jeune âge. En tant qu'éditeur en chef de son journal scolaire, il met en valeur ses compétences en racontant des récits impactants. Smith a ensuite étudié le journalisme à l'université Columbia, où il est diplômé en tête de sa classe. Après avoir étudié au New York Times, Sara décroche un poste de journaliste de nouvelles. Depuis dix ans, il a couvert des événements majeurs tels que les élections présidentielles et les catastrophes naturelles. Il a été acclamé pour sa capacité à créer des récits captivants qui capturent l'expérience humaine.
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