Communications disrupted due to solar storm: NPR

People as far south as Florida got to enjoy an astronomical light show Friday night as a geomagnetic storm sparked auroras and caused some interference to satellites.

Scott Detrow, host:

Right now in this galaxy, a huge solar storm is giving a beautiful sight to the people around the world. Social media is filled with surreal and spectacular photos of auroras as far south as Florida. Apart from these non-northern lights, this big burst of activity on the Sun's surface is causing little trouble for people operating satellites. NPR science correspondent Geoff Brumfiel is here to help us understand what's happening in space. Hey, Geoff.


Detrow: You want to talk Star Wars while we're there? Or let's talk about 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, it all comes down to a little spot on our Sun called sunspot area 3664. And by small, I mean it's 17 times the diameter of Earth.

Detro: Very small.

Brumfiel: Doesn't look big on the sun. Sunspots are these tangles of magnetic fields, and as they break and unravel, they hurl particles toward us that are, in effect, fragments of the Sun. And that's what's happening with each wave of particles hitting the Earth. This pushes particles around in our own atmosphere, creating these spectacular northern lights.

DETROW: And that's what a lot of people are focusing on, but let's talk about the downside.

Brumfiel: Yes. So obviously, some fraction of the Sun falling on the atmosphere can cause problems. These particles are charged. There are magnetic fields associated with them. And this can cause oscillations in the Earth's magnetic field, which can actually cause something called induction. In very long metal wires, this can produce electrical currents. Well, high power lines are long metal wires that extend for many miles, and so it can generate current and voltage in those lines and cause problems. Area 3664 has also produced two X-class solar flares in the past. Those flames are causing trouble for satellites, messing up communications and navigation equipment. NOAA's Space Weather Prediction Center told NPR earlier today that they were initial reports of power grid irregularities, loss of high-frequency communications and some GPS disruptions. But so far everything is going well.

Detrow: Okay. But how – tell us a little bit more about how this affects the hundreds of thousands of satellites that are in orbit above us.

Brumfiel: Yes. So as I mentioned, it can disrupt communications with satellites. You know, the radiation itself can also harm them. But this – the other big issue is that the atmosphere can become bad, there can be friction, and that is a big thing. You know, there are about 10,000 satellites in orbit in that neighborhood today. A large portion of them are satellites for Elon Musk's Starlink service.

Now, Musk tweeted earlier today that these Starlink satellites are under a lot of pressure, although they are holding up so far. But, you know, as it progresses and there's more pressure on these satellites, all of their orbits will change a little bit. The orbit of the debris in space will change slightly. And so there's going to be chaos over the weekend. We don't really know what the outcome will be.

Detrow: We have about 30 seconds left. There were a lot of people – people here in DC, especially last night with a lot of clouds, were jealous of all these aurora borealis pictures. Is there still a chance to see them?

Brumfiel: Yes, absolutely. There is a high chance that it will remain strong tonight, maybe even tomorrow night. If you can't see anything, here's a tip. Try using your phone. Point your phone north and take a photo. We've seen reports of phones capturing auroras even when the human eye can't.

Detrow: All right. Geoff Brumfiel, thank you very much.

Brumfiel: Thank you.

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