The latest sun storm had far-reaching impact, even on our radio airwaves. The major solar flare occurred last Saturday, even causing a radio blackout for several minutes on Earth. NASA captured video of the solar eruption, and its effects were also documented by the Space Weather Prediction Center, which says slower-moving particles from the flare could create a minor geomagnetic storm tonight.
Solar flaresinterfering with radio signals is nothing new, according to Rice University professor Patricia Reiff. "The x-rays that are emitted from the sun and the particles that are traveling at the speed of light, those hit the ionosphere (in the upper atmosphere) and cause it to shake, and it affects radio transmissions," she tells KTRH. "A lot of our radio waves we bounce off the ionosphere, and when the ionosphere is very turbulent then it doesn't bounce signals very well." While radio interference is the most immediate effect of solar flares, there are also delayed reactions. "The big blast of plasma that comes out (in a solar eruption), that takes one to two days to come to the Earth," says Reiff. That delayed reaction is the one expected tonight. Rather than disrupt radio waves, this one is more likely to enhance the northern lights displays, which happen when solar particles come into contact with particles in the Earth's atmosphere.
Solar flares generally don't pose a major threat to humans on the ground, because the Earth's atmosphere absorbs most of their impact. But powerful flares can threaten astronauts, satellites, or other objects in orbit. Right now, the sun is in an active phase of its 11-year cycle. Professor Reiff says it has already passed the peak of this cycle, but that doesn't mean the solar storms are over. "I would definitely keep your eyes open for the next few years, there could be some really good ones."