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More powerful solar storms could be heading to Earth

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Tourists normally have to pay big money and brave cold climates for a chance to see an aurora, but last weekend many people around the world simply had to look up to see these colorful displays dance across the sky.

Usually banished to the poles of Earth, the auroras strayed as far as Mexico, southern Europe and South Africa on the evening of May 10, delighting skygazers and filling social media with images of exuberant pinks, greens and purples.

But for those charged with protecting Earth from powerful solar storms such as the one that caused the auroras, a threat lurks beneath the stunning colours.

“We need to understand that behind this beauty, there is danger,” Quentin Verspieren, the European Space Agency’s space safety programme coordinator, told AFP.

Mike Bettwy of the US Space Weather Prediction Center said that “we’re focused on the more sinister potential impacts” of solar storms, such as taking out power grids and satellites, or exposing astronauts to dangerous levels of radiation.

The latest auroras were caused by the most powerful geomagnetic storm since the “Halloween Storms” of October 2003, which sparked blackouts in Sweden and damaged power infrastructure in South Africa.

There appears to have been less damage from the latest solar storms, though it often takes weeks for satellite companies to reveal problems, Bettwy said.

There were reports that some self-driving farm tractors in the United States stopped in their tracks when their GPS guidance systems went out due to the storm, he told AFP.

These strange effects are caused by massive explosions on the surface of the Sun that shoot out plasma, radiation and even magnetic fields at incredibly fast speeds born on the solar wind.

The recent activity has come from a sunspot cluster 17 times the size of Earth which has continued raging over the week. On Tuesday it blasted out the strongest solar flare seen in years.

The sunspot has been turning towards the edge of the Sun’s disc, so activity is expected to die down in the short term as its outbursts aim away from our planet.

But in roughly two weeks the sunspot will swing back around, again turning its gaze towards Earth.

In the meantime, another sunspot is “coming into view right now” which could trigger “major activity in the coming days,” ESA space weather service coordinator Alexi Glover told AFP.

So the solar activity is “definitely not over,” she added.

It is difficult to predict how violent these sunspots could be – or whether they could spark further auroras.

But solar activity is only just approaching the peak of its roughly 11-year cycle, so the odds of another major storm are highest “between now and the end of next year,” Bettwy said.


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