Gigantic solar storm is recorded by eight spacecraft

On April 17, 2021, an unprecedented solar storm lit up space, capturing the attention of several spacecraft spread across the Solar System. This extraordinary event, characterized by the eruption of a gigantic cloud of solar material, launched solar energetic particles (SEPs) at speeds close to that of light, creating a celestial spectacle that was observed from multiple spatial locations.

Scientists and researchers from around the world have turned their eyes and instruments to this manifestation of solar nature, eager to decipher its secrets and understand the implications of this powerful storm.

The phenomenon stood out not only for its magnitude, but also for its wide distribution, affecting spacecraft located at different points in the inner Solar System, and even in orbit around Mars.

Analysis of this storm provided a unique opportunity to study the effects of SEPs, high-energy particles that pose a significant risk to space technology and human health in space.

On April 17, 2021, NASA's STEREO-A spacecraft captured this view of a coronal mass ejection moving away from the Sun (which is covered by the black disk in the center to better see the features around it). Credit: NASA/STEREO-A/COR2

Spacecraft that captured the great solar storm of April 2021

Nina Dresing, a researcher at the Department of Physics and Astronomy at the University of Turku, Finland, led a team to investigate the event, with the aim of understanding the origin of SEPs and the mechanisms that accelerate them.

Understanding these particles is extremely important, as they can cause damage to satellites, disruptions in communications and navigation systems, as well as exposing astronauts and even passengers on commercial flights at high latitudes to dangerous levels of radiation.

The great solar storm of April 2021 was captured by eight spacecraft:

  • BepiColombo, en route to Mercury;
  • Parker Solar Probe and Solar Orbiter, both on missions to study the Sun more closely;
  • STEREO-A, one of two satellites of NASA's Solar-Earth Relations Observatory (STEREO);
  • Solar and Heliospheric Observatory (SOHO), a NASA/ESA partnership;
  • NASA's Wind satellite, which analyzes solar wind from low Earth orbit; NASA's MAVEN probe and ESA's Mars Express probe, in Mars orbit, the last to detect particles from the event.
Diagram shows the individual positions of the spacecraft, as well as Earth and Mars, during the solar flare on April 17, 2021. The Sun is at the center. The black arrow shows the direction of the initial solar flare. Several spacecraft have detected solar energetic particles (SEPs) above 210 degrees around the Sun (blue shaded area). Credit: Solar-MACH

BepiColombo, a collaboration between ESA (European Space Agency) and JAXA (Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency), was in a privileged position in relation to the solar flare, allowing the capture of an intense flow of particles.

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Gathered in an article published in the scientific journal Astronomy & Astrophysics, observations collected from these diverse perspectives allowed scientists to examine the differences in the particles that hit each spacecraft, revealing a previously ununderstood complexity about how these particles are launched into space and how they disperse throughout the Solar System. This suggests that different solar phenomena may be responsible for launching SEPs in various directions, a finding that challenges previous understanding of solar storms and their effects.

Image captured by coronagraphs on board the Solar and Heliospheric Observatory (SOHO). Credit: SOHO

Importance of international collaboration and the use of multiple spacecraft

Dresing's team discovered that electrons and protons can have different origins, a conclusion that highlights the complexity of solar processes. While the electrons appear to have been accelerated quickly by the initial light from the solar flare, the protons were probably propelled more slowly, through shock waves generated by the cloud of ejected solar material.

This distinction is fundamental for the development of more accurate models of solar dynamics and for the development of protection strategies against the adverse consequences of solar storms.

Furthermore, the event was marked by radio bursts emitted by the Sun, indicating possible explosions of particles in different directions. These observations provide important clues about how energetic particles become so widely distributed, contributing to a deeper understanding of the behavior of solar storms.

This study not only advances our knowledge of the Sun and its most violent manifestations, but also emphasizes the importance of international collaboration and the use of multiple spacecraft to observe these phenomena.

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