A powerful solar storm could bring Earth into the Dark Ages by pushing satellites out of orbit

As the Sun reaches its peak of solar activity, it is frightening to imagine the destruction a powerful solar storm can wreak on Earth. Notably, it can even destroy communication systems by moving satellites out of orbit.

The first half of 2022 was filled with solar storms hitting Earth. Some of them have 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 wonder if a much stronger storm is in the works. Historically speaking, Earth has periodically been hit by G5-class solar storms, the strongest we know of. However, it has been a while since such powerful storms have reached us. The last recorded G5 solar storm was in 1859 during a shocking incident known as the Carrington event. Now, over 160 years later, Earth is overdue for another great solar disaster.

The Carrington event is a historic milestone in solar studies, as the solar storm caused an unprecedented level of damage that was not anticipated earlier. Telegraph systems, once the main method of long-distance communication, have completely failed, with various parts of the world reporting sparks and damage to instruments. Power grids also failed, resulting in hours and days without power. But if a similar storm were to hit today, the damage could be exponentially higher.

How satellites increase the risk of a powerful solar storm

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, etc. And the satellites are our point of vulnerability in the event of a solar storm. A few months ago, Elon Musk led SpaceX to lose 40 of its Starlink satellites to a solar storm. It was a minor G2 class solar storm.

It is believed that a G5-class solar storm can be so powerful that it can knock back even the largest satellites orbiting Earth. Although scientists add insulators to satellites to protect them from major damage from solar storms, being pushed around isn’t something satellites can prevent. Being pushed back might seem like a small problem, but these satellites were placed into their orbits after careful consideration and the mismatch can lead to transmission distortion or even failure.

This means that a powerful solar storm can shut down internet connectivity, mobile networks and navigation systems. If this happens, most of our emergency services, transportation and communication systems will be disrupted and cause disaster on Earth. Pairing this with power grid outages can really take us back to the Dark Ages.

At present, we have nothing to protect us from such an eventuality. However, that’s why scientists are focusing on building better predictive models for the Sun, because given enough time, satellites can be moved to Earth’s night side to protect it from serious harm.

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