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Can Solar Flares Affect Our Flights? What History Tells Us About Electromagnetic Interference

By: Group Capt MJ Augustine Vinod VSM (Retd) & Vineet Maliakal

Last Updated: April 24, 2022, 10:10 IST

Elon Musk's SpaceX lost 40 out of the 49 satellites to a solar storm early this year. (File Photo/ Space X)

Elon Musk's SpaceX lost 40 out of the 49 satellites to a solar storm early this year. (File Photo/ Space X)

Technically, there has been an incident where a fighter aeroplane was affected by an electrical short circuit when flying low. In 1859, when telegraph was being used to pass information, the effect of solar flare wars was immense

This year, till 2025, heightened solar winds are taking over, which has led to mass hysteria in the corporate as well as the civil world, as events like the loss of a couple of SpaceX satellites, a complete radio blackout in Australia are associated with it. In February, 49 Starlink low-orbit satellites graced the space with their presence as they launched from Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Elon Musk’s SpaceX was responsible for establishing these satellites and breaking out the news about losing 40 out of the 49 satellites to a solar storm. The satellites were destroyed and hurled towards the Earth, which further diminished their reusability as, reportedly, no orbital debris was created and no parts fell to the ground.

According to SpaceX, what ended in such an unfortunate way had been initiated by a geomagnetic storm with a large burst of solar plasma gas and electromagnetic radiation that significantly increased the atmospheric density in the region surrounding the satellites. Jonathan McDowell, a Harvard-Smithsonian astrophysicist, said that the incident is believed to be the most significant collective loss of satellites from a single geomagnetic event. SpaceX further emphasised that their efforts to make the satellites avoid the storm failed drastically as it was one of the worst storms they had witnessed till now. Unsurprisingly enough, SpaceX isn’t the only organisation concerned about the cause of this situation; the entire scientific community is at a finger-biting stage. They believe that the solar storm events are not just here to stay, which seems like an unsound statement but will only increase in occurrence and magnitude as the Sun’s active phase rises.

Now, something happening in outer-space getting hindered by the activities of the Sun is not a hard thing to comprehend. Still, similar situations occur in the communication sphere on Earth due to the same source of hindrance, which isn’t just challenging to perceive but also very concerning.

Only days after a geomagnetic storm hit the Earth, a solar flare hurtled from the Sun on the 17th of April, causing a massive shortwave radio blackout in several parts of Asia and Australia.

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To give a better understanding, a solar flare is a sudden and intense explosion occurring on the surface of the Sun, which is caused by the storage and release of massive amounts of energy in the magnetic fields. Due to this explosion, radiations containing radio waves, X-rays and gamma rays get emitted and travel towards the planets in the solar system.

According to the US Space Weather Prediction Center (SWPC), the flare registered as an X1.1-class sun storm and lasted about 34 minutes, which in layman’s terms, it was an extreme solar activity that calls for concern. They further said solar activity is expected to be active over the next week as sure sunspots migrate across the visible disk; the cluster of active sunspots is Regions 2994 and 2993. It is safe to say that any handicap imposed due to this incident has since been taken care of, but saying nothing would follow such an event or that something like this wouldn’t happen again would be an invalid assertion. A radio blackout due to solar flares near our latitudes may be a rare occurrence, but it cannot be ruled out completely; a case in point is the Carrington event of 1859.

One of the most intense geomagnetic storms ever, the Carrington Event, conveniently named after the British astronomer Richard Carrington who observed and recorded the event independently alongside Richard Hodgson, took place from August 28, 1859 to September 2, 1859. It is considered a coronal mass ejection from the Sun’s collision with the Earth’s magnetosphere. A coronal mass ejection (CME) discharges a significant amount of plasma and accompanying magnetic field from the Sun’s corona into the solar wind, associating them with solar flares and other solar activities. Upon entering the interplanetary space, it is referred to as an Interplanetary Coronal Mass Ejection (ICME), which can collide with Earth’s magnetosphere and act as a source of an electromagnetic disturbance. An event like this did not go down without creating challenges for humans on the Earth. The telegraph systems all over Europe and North America were adversely affected and were unusable for more than 8 hours, which caused a heavy economic impact. People reported the change in colour of the auroras, which were visible around the world in various locations, describing them to be deep crimson red in some places and so bright that one could read a newspaper by its light.

Something that happened way back in the 1800s continues to occur even now, though with not the same kind of intensity, but it shows how out of our control the phenomenon is. The effect of solar storms is grievous in nature and makes the conditions of living, as well as working, extremely hard. And in the end. The Sun is a significant body of energy that does us more good than bad, but even if the harm it causes isn’t often, it is out of our reach to even find a way to avoid it. With the rising concern towards the impacts caused by the Sun’s activities, one could hope that the research towards it might bring a cure to it all; until then, we live silently, speculating.

Now the question is will it affect civilian aeroplanes like the Airbus and Boeing? Technically, there has been an incident where a fighter aeroplane was affected by an electrical short circuit when flying low. Its Fly-by-Wire system reportedly malfunctioned. Military planes are protected from electromagnetic interference because they are designed to fly in them. Even such an aircraft got affected because of the intensity of the electromagnetic interference. Such an interference like the Carrington event could technically affect civilian aeroplanes. In 1859, the man had not taken to the air, and the Wright brothers were yet to be born.

Today’s situation is not the same as in 1859; even in that year, when telegraph was being used to pass information from one country to another, the effect of solar flare wars was immense. Some radio stations could send telegraph messages without electricity because the telegraphic lines were so charged that you could transmit messages by just inducing electricity from these solar flares. Aviation is yet to witness events of this magnitude, and when it happens, probably, the world will realise the strength of a star, Sol.

The author is Group Captain (retd), Fighter Pilot, MiG-21, Mirage-2000. He is DGCA-nominated Qualified Flying Instructor and Aircraft Accident Investigator. Vineet Maliakal is COO, AutoMicroUAS. The views expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not represent the stand of this publication.

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first published:April 24, 2022, 09:58 IST
last updated:April 24, 2022, 10:10 IST