Solar flares and their impact on Earth

Our planet is ringed by thousands of satellites providing us with essential services but which are exposed and vulnerable to the changing moods of the Sun. 

Solar flares – dramatic bursts of radiation and energy emitted by the Sun, often expelling billions of tonnes of magnetised gas into space – can have a direct impact on Earth. Intense bursts of ultraviolet and X-ray radiation heat our atmosphere and change its electrical properties, causing loss of altitude in satellites and radio blackouts, while flare-accelerated high-energy particles can damage space electronics and solar panels.

Researchers in the School of Physics & Astronomy are investigating solar flares to help find ways we can minimise their impact on Earth and the space infrastructure we rely on in our daily lives.

“Primarily, we want to understand how a flare works – where its energy comes from, how that energy is converted into heat and radiation in the Sun’s atmosphere, and how a flare accelerates the subatomic particles that we detect in space and at the Sun,” says Professor of Astrophysics Lyndsay Fletcher. “Using data from ground and space-based observatories spanning all parts of the electromagnetic spectrum, from radio to gamma rays, combined with state-of-the-art numerical models, we are uncovering the fundamental physics of these complex events.”

While we can’t yet predict exactly when solar flares will happen and can’t prevent the arrival of radiation and particles on Earth, by studying how flares occur – in particular, how their emissions depend on the environment on the Sun – we can try to anticipate what they will do under different solar conditions and mitigate their impact in the future.