Home Electromagnetic Can solar flares affect our flights? What history teaches us about electromagnetic interference

Can solar flares affect our flights? What history teaches us about electromagnetic interference


This year, through 2025, increased solar winds are taking over, which has led to mass hysteria in the business world as well as the civilian world, as events like the loss of a few SpaceX satellites, an outage total radio in Australia are associated with this. In February, 49 Starlink low-orbit satellites graced space with their presence when they launched from Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Elon Musk’s SpaceX was responsible for establishing these satellites and announcing the loss of 40 of the 49 satellites to a solar storm. The satellites were destroyed and blasted back to Earth, further diminishing their reuse as apparently no orbital debris was created and no parts fell to the ground.

According to SpaceX, what ended so unhappily was initiated by a geomagnetic storm with a large explosion of solar plasma gas and electromagnetic radiation that significantly increased atmospheric density in the region surrounding the satellites. Jonathan McDowell, a Harvard-Smithsonian astrophysicist, said the incident would be the largest collective loss of satellites from a single geomagnetic event. SpaceX further pointed out that their efforts to get the satellites to avoid the storm failed drastically as it was one of the worst storms they had witnessed so far. Unsurprisingly, SpaceX isn’t the only organization concerned about the cause of this situation; the entire scientific community is in a finger-biting phase. They believe that solar storm events are not here to stay, which seems like a misstatement, but will only increase in occurrence and magnitude as the active phase of the Sun increases.

Now, something going on in space that is hampered by the activities of the Sun is not hard to understand. Yet, similar situations occur in the sphere of communication on Earth due to the same source of obstacle, which is not only difficult to perceive but also very worrying.

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

To understand better, 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 magnetic fields. Due to this explosion, radiation containing radio waves, X-rays and gamma rays are emitted and travel towards the planets of the solar system.

According to the US Space Weather Prediction Center (SWPC), the eruption was recorded as an X1.1-class solar storm and lasted about 34 minutes, which, simply put, was extreme solar activity that is cause for concern. They further stated that solar activity should be active over the next week as some sunspots migrate across the visible disk; the active sunspot cluster is regions 2994 and 2993. It’s safe to say that any handicap imposed due to this incident has since been taken care of, but to say nothing would follow such an event or anything like that would not happen again be an invalid assertion. Radio failure due to solar flares near our latitudes may be a rare event, but it cannot be completely ruled out; an example is the Carrington event of 1859.

One of the most intense geomagnetic storms of all time, the Carrington event, named after British astronomer Richard Carrington who independently observed and recorded the event alongside Richard Hodgson, took place from August 28 1859 to September 2, 1859. It is believed to be a coronal mass ejection due to the collision of the Sun with the Earth’s magnetosphere. A coronal mass ejection (CME) discharges a significant amount of plasma and its accompanying magnetic field from the solar corona into the solar wind, associating it with solar flares and other solar activity. Entering interplanetary space is referred to as interplanetary coronal mass ejection (ICME), which can collide with the Earth’s magnetosphere and act as a source of electromagnetic disturbance. An event like this did not happen without creating challenges for humans on Earth. Telegraph systems throughout Europe and North America were affected and remained unusable for more than 8 hours, causing a heavy economic impact. People reported the changing color of the auroras, which were visible around the world in various locations, describing them as being a deep crimson red in some places and so bright you could read a newspaper in its light.

Something that happened in the 1800s continues to happen even today, albeit with a different intensity, but it shows how much the phenomenon is out of our control. The effect of solar storms is severe in nature and makes living and working conditions extremely difficult. And at the end. The Sun is an important body of energy that does us more good than harm, but even if the harm it causes is infrequent, it is beyond our reach to find a way to avoid it. With growing concern about the impacts caused by the Sun’s activities, one would hope that research into this might provide a cure for all of this; until then we live in silence, speculating.

Now the question is will this affect civilian aircraft like Airbus and Boeing? Technically, there was an incident where a fighter jet was affected by an electrical short while flying at low altitude. Its Fly-by-Wire system would have malfunctioned. Military aircraft are shielded from electromagnetic interference because they are designed to fly there. Even such an aircraft was affected due to the intensity of electromagnetic interference. Such interference as the Carrington event could technically affect civilian aircraft. In 1859, the man had not taken to the air and the Wright brothers had not yet been born.

The situation today is not the same as in 1859; even that year, when the telegraph was used to transmit information from one country to another, the effect of the solar flare wars was immense. Some radio stations could send telegraph messages without electricity because the telegraph lines were so charged that you could transmit messages by simply inducing electricity from these solar flares. Aviation has not yet witnessed events of this magnitude, and when it does, probably, the world will realize the strength of a star, Sol.

The author is Group Captain (retd), Fighter Pilot, MiG-21, Mirage-2000. He is a qualified flight instructor and an aviation accident investigator appointed by the DGCA. Vineet Maliakal is COO, AutoMicroUAS. The opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not represent the position of this publication.

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