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Solar storm disrupts communications

SCOTT DETROW, HOST:

Right now in this galaxy, a major solar storm is giving people all over the world a beautiful show. Social media has been bursting with surreal and spectacular pictures of the auroras as far south as Florida. In addition to these not-so-northern lights, this big burst of activity on the surface of the sun is creating a little bit of a hassle for people who run satellites. Here to help us understand what is going on in space is NPR science correspondent Geoff Brumfiel. Hey, Geoff.

GEOFF BRUMFIEL, BYLINE: Hi, Scott.

DETROW: You want to talk Star Wars while we're at it? Or let's talk about the solar storm...

BRUMFIEL: Don't get me started on Jar Jar Binks.

DETROW: So look, a lot of people who live in northern latitudes have seen the northern lights before, but this time, people in Florida are posting pictures. Help us understand what is going on.

BRUMFIEL: Well, this all comes down to a little spot on our sun called sunspot region 3664. And by little, I mean it's 17 times the diameter of the earth.

DETROW: Pretty small.

BRUMFIEL: Doesn't look big on the sun. Sunspots are these tangles of magnetic fields, and as they sort of snap and unwind, they fling particles out towards us, actually, bits of the sun. And that's what's happening is each wave of particles hits the earth. It pushes around the particles in our own atmosphere, creating these spectacular northern lights.

DETROW: And that's what a lot of people have been focusing on, but talk about the downsides.

BRUMFIEL: Yeah. So obviously, having bits of the sun hit the atmosphere can create problems. These particles are charged. They have magnetic fields associated with them. And that can create oscillations in Earth's magnetic field, which can actually cause something called induction. In very long metal wires, it can create electrical currents. Well, high-powered lines are long metal wires that stretch for many miles, and so it can induce currents and voltages in those lines and cause problems. Region 3664 has also produced two X-class solar flares over the past days. Those flares are causing trouble for satellites, messing up communications and navigation equipment. NOAA's Space Weather Prediction Center told NPR earlier today that they were preliminary reports of power grid irregularities, loss of high frequency communications and some GPS disruptions. But so far, everything's still running OK.

DETROW: OK. But how - tell us a little bit more about how this affects these thousands and thousands of satellites that are in orbit above us.

BRUMFIEL: Yeah. So as I mentioned, it can disrupt communication with the satellites. It can also, you know, the radiation itself can damage them. But this - the other big issue is the atmosphere can puff out, causing drag, and that's a big deal. You know, today there are close to 10,000 satellites in orbit somewhere in that neighborhood. A huge chunk of those are satellites for Elon Musk's Starlink service.

Now, Musk tweeted earlier today that these Starlink satellites are under a lot of pressure, though so far holding up. But, you know, as this goes on and there's more drag on these satellites, all their orbits are going to change a little bit. The debris in space, its orbit will change a little bit. And so it's going to be chaotic up there coming out of the weekend. We don't really know how it's going to play out.

DETROW: We got about 30 seconds left. A lot of people were - people here in D.C., especially with a lot of clouds last night, were jealous of all these aurora borealis pictures. Is there still a chance to see them?

BRUMFIEL: Yeah, absolutely. There's a great chance that it'll be strong tonight, maybe through tomorrow night as well. If you can't see anything, here's a tip. Try using your phone. Hold your phone up to the north and take a picture. We've seen reports that the phones are picking up the auroras even when the human eye can't.

DETROW: All right. Geoff Brumfiel, thank you so much.

BRUMFIEL: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Geoff Brumfiel works as a senior editor and correspondent on NPR's science desk. His editing duties include science and space, while his reporting focuses on the intersection of science and national security.