THE sun has released two huge solar flares, prompting fears they could affect global communications at a time when satellites are desperately needed.
As Hurricane Irma approaches the US, devastating the Caribbean islands along the way, the likes of Nasa and weather forecasters will be relying on satellites to keep up to date with the powerful storm.
However, the two solar flares – the strongest in 12 years – could put satellite communication in jeopardy.
Solar storms blast radiation in all directions from the sun, some of which hit the outer atmosphere of Earth, causing it to heat up and expand.
This means satellite signals would struggle to penetrate the swollen atmosphere, leading to a lack of internet service, GPS navigation, satellite TV such as Sky and mobile phone signal.
Additionally, increased currents in the Earth’s magnetic field – or magnetosphere – could theoretically lead to a surge in power lines, which can blow out electrical transformers and power stations.
Nasa said in a statement: “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.”
However, Terry Onsager, a physicist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Space Weather Prediction Center, moved to calm fears about the satellites – specifically theirs which have been used to help track Hurricane Irma.
He told Live Science: “The satellites are designed very specifically to take into account these kinds of events.”
Interestingly, the powerful flares come just as the sun moves towards a period of low activity.
The sun follows cycles of roughly 11 years where it reaches a solar maximum and then a solar minimum – which our star is heading towards.
During the former, the Sun gives off more heat, and less in the latter.
Nasa added: “The current solar cycle began in December 2008, and is now decreasing in intensity and heading toward solar minimum.
“This is a phase when such eruptions on the sun are increasingly rare, but history has shown that they can nonetheless be intense.”