On September 1, 1859, the Earth was hit by one of the most powerful solar storms in human history. It is known as the Carrington Event, and it is not necessarily the case that it was the most violent or powerful ever. As with earthquakes, the calculation is done above all on the effects. And that tsunami of plasma that left the Sun at a speed of millions of kilometers per hour reached with its power a planet on which the civilization that inhabited it had just developed the first technologies vulnerable to that immense flow of energy. In the reports and articles in the newspapers of the timethe telegraph workers reported having received an electric shock while working: “For the first time someone was touched by the consequences of space weather”, Marco Stangalini, space weather scientist of the Italian Space Agency, pointed out to us.
Compared to 164 years ago, such an event would be disastrous, because we now rely much more on sensitive technologies (communications, GPS, Internet), a large part of whose networks are deployed in orbit. And now the Sun is approaching the maximum of its activity, expected between 2024 and 2025. As explained by Stangalini, talking about predictions is still risky. Which it probably is what he will say at the New Space Economy Expoforum, an annual event now in its fifth edition, organized in pavilion 4 of Fiera Roma. Three days, from 5 to 7 December, dedicated to the themes of the space economy with the patronage of the Italian Space Agency and of CNR, Enea, Ingv, Order of Engineers of the province of Rome and with the collaboration of the Lazio Region and the Chamber of Commerce of Rome.
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Space weather and climate
We are used to talking about resilience, prevention and adaptation to the earth’s climate, but also space climate and weather can cause quite a few problems. For this reason, for years now, just as weather forecasts are calculated, the behavior of our star has also been under examination, in order to be able to predict its excesses in the future. The first indicator is the sunspots, colder and darker areas where the magnetic field emerges: “The dynamics of the Sun’s magnetic field follows an 11-year cycle that depends on the internal dynamo of the star – Stangalini reminded us – Something physically complex that we haven’t fully understood yet. We are immersed in the solar atmosphere, the Sun and Earth are connected by the solar wind.”
A unique system, with interplanetary magnetic field lines drawn by the same solar wind. It is along these that the storms originating from coronal mass eruptions, the most energetic events, travel, as if on tracks: “It is a phenomenon that accumulates energy within the Sun’s atmosphere – added Stangalini – We can imagine the magnetic fields like rubber bands that tangle until they reach a breaking load. When the energy is too high they break down and reconfigure themselves quickly, shooting bubbles of plasma like bullets into Space and, if physical conditions allow it, they also arrive on Earth.” The constant flow of particles of the solar wind gives rise to the normal polar auroras, but here we are talking about a very fast wave that carries a load of great energy and can bring the auroras to very low latitudes, even as far as the Caribbean.
Full halo coronal mass ejection (CME) associated with the X2.2 flare on 17 February 2023 – the strongest of solar cycle 25 so far. The edge of the plasma cloud is expected to impact Earth, possibly triggering a geomagnetic storm. Images recorded by SOHO/LASCO. pic.twitter.com/L7q1824p5u
— SOHO_Mission (@MissionSoho) February 18, 2023
Space Solar flare warning, radio communications may be affected 17 July 2023
The powerful but fragile civilization
That wave of energy moves at frightening speeds, up to thousands of kilometers per second. Be the first to encounter what is in Space. The satellites in orbit, first of all, and together with those the astronauts and taikonauts of the two orbiting laboratories (the International Space Station and the Chinese Tiangong). In the future, astronaut missions on the surface of the Moon will also have to take these risks into account: “A lot of work is being done on radiation protection technologies for human lunar missions, with all the modules to shield them, because the goal will be a stable presence on the Moon – underlined the astrophysicist – For satellites, technical solutions are studied based on the environment in which they will have to operate, up to precautions such as shutting down for safety”.
In February 2022, one geomagnetic storm it caused the Earth’s atmosphere to swell and prevented dozens of newly launched Starlink satellites from raising their orbit. Out of 49, 38 were lost, tens of millions of dollars pulverized. It is just one example of the fragility of our technologies which can be attacked by events that are still difficult to predict and cause billions of damage. The Carrington storm, like others that followed, at the end of the 19th century and at the beginning of the 20th century (a very recent study published in The Astrophysical journal, also signed by Inaf researcher Ilaria Ermolli, examines that of 1872), among the most powerful in memory, found a civilization on Earth that was still not very vulnerable precisely because it was not yet dependent on satellite services or electricity. Now things are very different.
When it arrives on earth, the tsunami floods and disturbs the Earth’s magnetic field which can overload the power plants but also generate radio blackouts which can even interfere with cellular communications: “It produces currents on the ground and the effect on the electricity networks can be significant – Stangalini told us again – In Canada, in ’89, there was a vast blackout. Let’s think about the consequences on the activities of the hospitalsat telecommunicationsin which orbital and terrestrial systems talk to each other, to data transmission lines, to GPS signals. To all activities that use it, such as air, naval and land traffic. It is not the phenomenon itself, but everything that is connected and depends on the systems that are damaged.”
The Carrington event today would be a catastrophe. That’s why scientists are refining the models. A geomagnetic storm cannot be predicted, but the Sun is monitored 24/7. You can see it coming, and you can usually prepare a few hours in advance, up to a couple of days. Space weather, that is, predictions on how the Sun will behave, are something else entirely: “Like the Earth’s atmosphere, that of the Sun is a chaotic system, and complex systems (Giorgio Parisi won a Nobel for this, ed.) must be studied from a global scale up to the kilometer – added the ASI expert – For this we have sent probes such as Europe’s Solar Orbiter and NASA’s Parker, and others are under construction.” The probes’ work is proving invaluable: “They are changing the way we see how the Sun governs its atmosphere and the complex interactions of the magnetic field and understand the physics behind it.”
It’s all so complicated that any prediction is still a gamble. Starting with those of the solar cycle, which is reaching its maximum activity, expected for 2024-2025. Extreme events, however, are more likely at the end of this phase: “Statistically during the declining phase of activity there is greater instability, because the two cycles intersect and we typically witness a greater number of phenomena, so there would still be a lack of bit’. But This does not mean that they cannot be verified Before. Unfortunately, most predictions turn out to be wrong.”