Friend or Foe?

Coronal mass ejections (CMEs) and their related phenomenon, solar flares, are known to degrade or cancel radio transmissions, rattle the magnetosphere and the ionosphere, and threaten to fry electronics on satellites and other objects in the heavens above—not to mention the people flying inside them.

The Sun-orbiting SOHO spacecraft imaged this coronal mass ejection. The sun itself is shown in ultraviolet light. (Image credit: NASA, ESA, SOHO Consortium)

This storm of woes might make you think there is no value to us from CMEs. After all, what could be positive about solar events that hold the potential to wreak so much havoc? But let’s delve a little deeper.

CMEs and Solar Flares—What’s The Difference?

A coronal mass ejection is a huge expulsion of material from the surface of the sun. A solar flare is much the same; it is also an enormous blast of energy coming off the sun. But they’re not the same. While solar flares emit highly ionized radiation explosively into space in all directions, a CME is specifically a cloud of plasma and electromagnetic energy released into the Universe.

When a CME releases matter and energy into the surrounding area, it doesn’t just stay there. The explosion forces the ejected material and energy out into the cosmos at enormous speeds of up to 1,000 km/second (2 million mph), with the energy equivalent of one billion hydrogen bombs.

Here on Earth, there is very little time to prepare. And, really, there is little we can do to get ready. At its peak, the storm, referred to as space weather, can cause outages in many electronic systems, including:

  • GPS satellites and systems
  • Radio communications
  • Satellite communications
  • Radar
  • Cellphones

Harmful radiation from a flare cannot pass through Earth’s atmosphere to physically affect humans on the ground. However—when intense enough—they can disturb the atmosphere in the layer where GPS and communications signals travel.

Effects of the Storm

When a cloud of charged particles and magnetic loops hurls directly toward Earth, it crashes into the Earth’s protective magnetosphere, causing it to shake and quiver. This is called a “geomagnetic storm.”

The sun emits a mid-level solar flare on October 2, 2014. (Image credit: NASA, SDO, Wiessinger)

In December 2005, X-rays from a solar storm disrupted satellite-to-ground communications and GPS navigation signals for about 10 minutes. It may not sound particularly serious to lose your GPS for a few minutes when you’re driving around town, but much more is at risk. As researcher Louis J. Lanzerotti noted, “I would not have wanted to be on a commercial airplane being guided in for a landing by GPS or on a ship being docked by GPS during that 10 minutes.”

Solar Superstorms: a SpaceRip full length original!

Fearful Beauty

It may be hard to reconcile the amazingly destructive power attacking Earth with a phenomenon of stunning beauty, but the energy that hits here rushes around the planet and pools at the two poles, creating a display called auroras. The Aurora Borealis sends a spectacular light show into the skies around the Arctic Circle and sometimes even as far south as parts of Canada and the northern U.S. The Aurora Australis produces similar effects in the Southern Hemisphere.

An aurora appears in the night sky above Iceland. (Image Credit & Copyright: Juan Carlos Casado [TWAN, Earth and Stars])

A Positive Promise

So far, we’ve noted a lot of ill effects from solar flares and CMEs but only one benefit, albeit one of spectacular beauty. Other examples of potentially positive news may arise from scientific research. For instance, a team of medical researchers at the Brookhaven National Laboratory in New York is interested in the effect of proton bombardment as it penetrates our atmosphere. Could this radiation point to improvements in cancer therapy?

The same research could also advance the field of astrobiology as it considers how to more accurately predict and mitigate the effects of space radiation on astronauts’ cells and tissue as they move through interplanetary space. While the friend vs. foe equation might generally appear to be tipped to the negative end of the scale when it comes to solar flares and CMEs, these important avenues of research could lead to real benefits not only to astral travelers but also to people right here on Earth.