As the Sun reaches its peak solar activity, it is scary to imagine the destruction a powerful solar storm can do to the Earth. Notably, it can even destroy communication systems by shifting satellites out of their orbit.
The first half of 2022 was packed with solar storms that struck the Earth. Some of them even reached the intensity of a G3 class solar storm, which can disrupt GPS systems and cause radio blackouts. But with the Sun moving towards its solar maximum, the peak of its solar cycle, scientists are concerned whether a much stronger storm is in the making. Historically speaking, the Earth has periodically been hit by G5 class solar storms, the strongest known to us. However, it has been some time since such powerful storms came our way. The last recorded G5 solar storm was in 1859 in a shocking incident which is known as the Carrington Event. Now, more than 160 years later, the Earth is overdue for another big solar catastrophe.
The Carrington Event is a historic landmark in solar studies because the incoming solar storm did an unprecedented level of damage which was not expected earlier. Telegraph systems, which used to be the primary method for long distance communication, entirely failed, with various parts of the world reporting sparks and damage to the instruments. Power grids also failed resulting in hours and days without electricity. But if a similar storm were to take place today, the damage could be exponentially higher.
How satellites increase the risk from a powerful solar storms
Compared to 1859, we have advanced by leaps and bounds in technology and we rely heavily on wireless satellite communication in the form of the internet, mobile networks, navigation systems, radar technology and so on. And satellites are our point of vulnerability in case a solar storm hits. A few months back, Elon Musk led SpaceX lost 40 of its Starlink satellites due to a solar storm. That was a minor G2 class solar storm.
It is believed that a G5 class solar storm can be so powerful that it can push away even the largest satellites orbiting around the Earth. While scientists do add insulators to the satellites to protect them from major damage from solar storms, being pushed is not something satellites can prevent. Being pushed away may sound like a small issue, but these satellites have been placed in their orbits after careful consideration and the shift can cause the transmission to get distorted or even fail.
That means, a powerful solar storm can put a stop to internet connectivity, mobile networks and navigation systems. If that happens, most of our emergency services, transport and communication systems will see disruptions and spell a disaster on Earth. Coupling that with power grid failures can truly take us back to the dark ages.
At present, we do not have anything to protect us from such a contingency. However, this is why scientists are focusing on building better prediction models for the Sun, as with enough time, the satellites can be moved to the night-side of the Earth to protect it from any severe damage.