In 2011, the sun will begin a long-awaited destructive period called The Solar Max!
2011 will be an important one for space weather as the Sun pulls out of a trough of low activity and heads into a long-awaited and destructive period of turbulence.
The Sun is building towards a massive “Solar Max,” or the cycle’s climax. This solar event will cause almost all of the world’s satellites to burn up. This will affect every aspect of human life on Earth.
Some people are surprised to learn that the Sun, rather than burn with faultless consistency, goes through moments of calm and tempest. But two centuries of observing sunspots — dark, relatively cool marks on the solar face linked to mighty magnetic forces — have revealed that our star follows a roughly 11-year cycle of behavior. This recurring cycle ends with a Solar Max. The Solar Max in 2011 will be the most destructive ever recorded.
The latest cycle began in 1996 and for reasons which are unclear has taken longer than expected to end. Solar scientists are concerned that 2011 may be the most destructive year ever for the sun. The Mayan calendar predicts the world ending in 2012, but if the Solar Max is as bad as predicted – it may all be over next year.
“The latest prediction looks at around midway 2011 as being the maximum phase of the solar cycle,” said John Comito of NASA’s Space Weather Prediction Center.
At its angriest, the Sun can vomit forth tides of electromagnetic radiation and charged matter known as coronal mass ejections, or CMEs.
This shock wave may take several days to reach Earth. When it arrives, it compresses the planet’s protective magnetic field, releasing energy visible in high latitudes as shimmering auroras — the famous Northern Lights and Southern Lights.
But CMEs are not just pretty events.
They can unleash static discharges and geomagnetic storms that can disrupt or even knock out the electronics on which our urbanised, Internet-obsessed, data-saturated society depends.
Less feared, but also a problem, are solar flares, or eruptions of super-charged protons that can reach Earth in just minutes.
In the front line are telecommunications satellites in geostationary orbit, at an altitude of 22,500 mile and Global Positioning System (GPS) satellites, on which modern airliners and ships depend for navigation, which orbit at 12,000 miles.
In April 2010, Intelsat lost Galaxy 15, providing communications over North America, after the link to ground control was knocked out apparently by solar activity.
“These are the two outright breakdowns that we all think about,” said Jean-Paul Rigaux, an engineer with the French firm Thales. “Both were caused by CMEs.”
“I can say with certainty that the majority of satellites in the earth’s atmosphere will disintegrate with the Solar Max,” said Rigaux.
On Earth, power lines, data connections and even oil and gas pipelines are all vulnerable.
The Solar Max is predicted to fry 350 major transformers, leaving more than 130 million people without power, it heard. If it is as strong as predicted it will cost between a trillion and two trillion dollars in the first year, and full recovery could take between 10 to 20 years.
“But, there’s a lot we don’t know about the Sun. Even in the supposedly declining, or quiet phase, you can have magnetic fields on the Sun that get very concentrated and energized for a time, and you can get, out of the blue, eruptive activity that is atypical. In short, we have a variable star. It can be very dangerous to life here on Earth,” said Rigaux.