Sun Explosions & Space Hurricanes: The Silent Threat To Global Communications Systems

Photo: © Holly Zell / NASA
Sun Explosions & Space Hurricanes: The Silent Threat To Global Communications Systems
Plasma regularly escapes from the sun through eruptions on our star’s surface. Thankfully, the Earth is protected from these high energy particles due to the planet’s magnetic field – but they can result in potentially catastrophic ‘space hurricanes’.

Even the smallest of particles exploding off the sun can have a huge impact in the development of so-called space hurricanes, due to a phenomenon known as the Kelvin-Helmholtz Instability.

It means a dense radiation zone, known as the Van Allen belts, created by solar wind particles, effectively lays siege to the Earth.

Space Hurricanes

While the charged materials are unable to reach into Earth’s atmosphere, turbulence brewing outside could potentially impact humankind in other ways.

Anomalies known as ‘space hurricanes’ have the potential to knock out communications and even impede manned space missions. Just like on Earth, the hurricanes formed by the accumulation of heat energy can have devastating impacts.

Kelvin-Helmholtz Instability

Researchers from the US, UK and Finland studying the Kelvin-Helmholtz Instability found that the phenomenon, whereby materials with different velocities pass one another, can trigger such vortices.

Like ripples created by wind passing over water, instability caused by the sun’s plasma bouncing off Earth’s magnetic field has the potential to grow and form bands of heat energy approximately 67,000km (42,000 miles) above the Earth’s surface.

Lead author of a new study on the phenomenon, Katariina Nykyri, from the Center for Space and Atmospheric Research in Florida, compared the distribution of plasma via the Kelvin Helmholtz phenomenon to the “butterfly effect” – the theory that a small change can have large consequences further afield.

“It’s a nice analogy… when you have a plasma butterfly in the magnetosheath flapping its wings in the right frequency and in the right amplitude, you can create larger Kelvin-Helmholtz waves and larger space hurricanes,” she told

As part of the study, the team analyzed seven years of NASA Themis spacecraft data regarding magnetosheath velocity changes.

Nykyria said observing fluctuations in space weather is essential for the protection of critical infrastructure, like communication satellites, floating around in the great expanse.

“These Kelvin-Helmholtz waves, they can actually excite and produce these ultra frequency fluctuations on the Earth’s magnetic field lines that can interact with radiation belt particles. And that’s where the danger comes in.

“When you have a charged particle that is accelerating or deaccelerating it actually produces radiation and this kind of radiation is extremely harmful for astronauts but also for the instrumentation and any kind of technology onboard spacecraft,” she said.

The full study, which also included research from universities in Exeter, Alaska and Espoo, Finland, is available in the Journal of Geophysical Research.


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