Scientists have known for a century and a half that the Sun can be a destructive neighbor. In 1859 a solar storm observed by British astronomer Richard Carrington sent a cloud of charged particles slamming into Earth, overloading the new telegraph networks taking shape then. Some of them shut down as spikes in surge currents through the wires started fires and shocked operators.
The so-called Carrington event—known to scientists as a coronal mass ejection (CME)—was a blip on the technological continuum compared to what would happen under the same celestial circumstances in today’s wired world. The global infrastructure is interconnected in ways that stretch humanity’s ability to understand the consequences of a CME of comparable energy scoring another direct hit. We may find out, and soon.
Thomas Zurbuchen, a professor of space science and aerospace engineering at the University of Michigan, weighs in on the opportunities and challenges of emerging space-based sensors to provide timely and accurate warning of approaching CMEs.