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Dangerous Beauty of the Northern Lights: The Largest Solar Storm in 20 Years Hits Earth in May

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Photo: Dangerous Beauty of the Northern Lights: The Largest Solar Storm in 20 Years Hits Earth in May. Source: esa.int
Photo: Dangerous Beauty of the Northern Lights: The Largest Solar Storm in 20 Years Hits Earth in May. Source: esa.int

Last weekend, the largest solar storm to hit the Earth in decades swept over our planet as the Sun's activity increases towards the peak of the current solar cycle, the European Space Agency (ESA) said. Usually, the northern and southern lights are limited to northern latitudes, but recently they blinded many earthlings with a festival of colours in the night sky as far away as Southern Europe and Africa.

A large group of spots passed across the Sun's disc, and flares occurred, with their number reaching fifty, including some very powerful ones. The events culminated on 10 May, with a series of flares accompanied by the release of large plasma clouds directed towards the Earth. This resulted in a large magnetic storm with a very high power. While the aurora is usually greenish, this time it was cherry red.

However, for those responsible for protecting ground-based installations vulnerable to solar storms, the sight was less attractive, and its causes still threatening. 

"We have to understand that behind this beauty lies danger," Quentin Verspiren, Space Security Programme Coordinator at the European Space Agency (ESA), told AFP.

For the first time in 20 years, an extreme geomagnetic storm has hit the Earth. This series of solar flares and coronal mass ejections caused powerful magnetic storms that reached the Earth on the evening of Friday, 10 May. They may also disrupt communications on Earth over the weekend. This could affect the power grid, as well as satellite and high-frequency radio communications, the government organisation Main Centre for Special Control of Ukraine explains.

"There are already numerous reports from the front line of GPS, radio communications, and Starlink failures, which is an expected consequence of a geomagnetic storm of this magnitude. The power system, railway signalling systems, etc. are at risk. You should not rely on HF and satellite communications - they can fail at any time," wrote Oleksiy Parnovsky, PhD in Physics and Mathematics, an expert in space weather, solar-terrestrial physics and satellite data processing methods, from the Institute of Space Research of the National Academy of Sciences of Ukraine.

The Northern Lights are a rapidly changing optical phenomenon of glowing parts of the night sky in polar regions. It occurs in the upper layers of the planet's atmosphere under the influence of streams of charged particles that the planet's magnetic field directs towards the poles. The activity on the surface of the Sun generates space weather, which spreads outwards throughout the Solar System. Last week, a very large active region on the Sun facing our planet exploded several times and threw a large solar storm towards Earth.

Several large solar flares and a series of coronal mass ejections (CMEs) were directed towards Earth, sending large amounts of fast-moving magnetised plasma through space towards our planet.

While our planet's magnetic field protects us from most of this activity, this time the protective layer was stretched and stressed to an extremely high degree. The charged particles interacted with our atmosphere and created auroras not only in the polar regions but also at much lower latitudes.



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