Space Hurricanes Over the Arctic Look Super Cool, But Could Cause Problems for Satellites

Scientists believe the swirling geomagnetic storms, Aurora Surrealis, could affect communication and navigation systems.

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An aurora over Iceland. Not a space hurricane, but you get the picture.
An aurora over Iceland. Not a space hurricane, but you get the picture.
Photo: Owen Humphreys/PA Images (Getty Images)

An aurora borealis is one of the most beautiful natural phenomena on the planet. The dancing waves of colorful light are also a reminder of our place in the universe. Auroras are caused by a stream of charged particles from the Sun, solar winds, hitting the Earth’s magnetosphere and then precipitating in the upper atmosphere. It’s literally raining light from the Sun. A space hurricane, on the other hand, is the Sun deciding that we need a sick eight-hour-long light show visible from the International Space Station.

Space hurricanes were discovered by scientists last year. As its name implies, this unique type of geomagnetic storm rotates over the North Pole and has a calm eye in the center. These light storms can be over 600 miles in diameter. According to the Washington Post, a new study has been published which reveals even more about this recently discovered type of aurora. The other significant difference from traditional auroras is that they last around eight hours instead of around 20 minutes.

However, it’s going to be difficult if you want to see a space hurricane in person. These auroras only occur in extremely high northern latitudes, at or about 80 degrees. Svalbard is the only populated area in this tight circle near the North Pole. You could gamble on booking a flight that overflies that Arctic at night, but you’d miss out on the hours-long experience.

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While a spectacular sight, space hurricanes could be somewhat dangerous. They heat up the atmosphere and impact the orbits of satellites. Qing-He Zhang, a professor and the study’s author told the Washington Post, “From both the communications and the navigation points of view, this looks like it will be something we want to add to our predictions for aircraft flying polar routes. The study of space hurricanes is just beginning.” Though, the phenomena don’t directly endanger any astronauts in orbit who might be watching.