‘We’ll Be Studying This Event For Years’: NASA Reveals How It Tracked Historic Solar Storm

In a display of cosmic power that left scientists awestruck, the Sun unleashed a barrage of solar flares and coronal mass ejections (CMEs) during the first week of May. The resulting solar storm, the strongest to hit Earth in two decades, not only dazzled skygazers with spectacular auroras but also provided a unique opportunity for researchers to deepen their understanding of these celestial phenomena.

“We’ll be studying this event for years,” says Teresa Nieves-Chinchilla, acting director of NASA’s Moon to Mars (M2M) Space Weather Analysis Office. “It will help us test the limits of our models and understanding of solar storms.”

The storm’s prelude began on May 7 with two powerful solar flares. Over the next four days, the Sun fired off multiple strong flares, including eight X-class flares — the most intense type. The strongest of these reached an astonishing X5.8 rating. Simultaneously, at least seven CMEs hurtled towards Earth at speeds up to 3 million mph.

A coronal aurora appeared over southwestern British Columbia on May 10, 2024
A coronal aurora appeared over southwestern British Columbia on May 10, 2024. (credit: NASA/Mara Johnson-Groh)

As the CMEs coalesced into waves, they reached our planet on May 10, triggering a prolonged geomagnetic storm that peaked at G5 — the highest level on the scale.

“The CMEs all arrived largely at once, and the conditions were just right to create a really historic storm,” explains Elizabeth MacDonald, NASA heliophysics citizen science lead and a space scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland.

The storm’s arrival painted the skies with breathtaking auroras visible across the globe, even in regions typically too far south to witness these celestial light shows. Reports poured into the NASA-funded Aurorasaurus citizen science site from as low as 26 degrees magnetic latitude, hinting that this storm might rival some of the lowest-latitude aurora sightings recorded in the past five centuries.

“Cameras — even standard cell phone cameras — are much more sensitive to the colors of the aurora than they were in the past,” notes MacDonald. “By collecting photos from around the world, we have a huge opportunity to learn more about auroras through citizen science.”

Measuring the storm’s intensity proved challenging due to evolving technology. However, by one metric called the disturbance storm time index, which dates back to 1957, this event was comparable to historic storms in 1958 and 2003.

“It’s a little hard to gauge storms over time because our technology is always changing,” says Delores Knipp, a research professor in the Smead Aerospace Engineering Science Department and a senior research associate at the NCAR High Altitude Observatory, in Boulder, Colorado. “Aurora visibility is not the perfect measure, but it allows us to compare over centuries.”

As the storm approached, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Space Weather Prediction Center issued warnings to operators of power grids and commercial satellites, allowing them to mitigate potential impacts. NASA missions also braced for the storm, with some spacecraft preemptively powering down certain instruments or systems to avoid issues.

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The storm’s aftermath has left scientists eager to learn more about how solar events influence Earth’s upper atmosphere — a crucial aspect of understanding space weather’s impact on satellites, crewed missions, and infrastructure. Future missions like NASA’s Geospace Dynamics Constellation (GDC) and Dynamical Neutral Atmosphere-Ionosphere Coupling (DYNAMIC) will provide unprecedented insights into how our atmosphere responds to the energy influxes during solar storms.

Although the solar region responsible for the recent stormy weather has rotated to the Sun’s far side, the story is far from over. NASA’s Solar TErrestrial RElations Observatory (STEREO), positioned ahead of Earth in its orbit, will continue monitoring the active region.

“The active region is just starting to come into view of Mars,” concludes Jamie Favors, director for the NASA Space Weather Program. “We’re already starting to capture some data at Mars, so this story only continues.”


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