The 11-year solar cycle—characterized by a rise in sunspots, solar flares, and other mass-scale activity in the massive ball of fusion at the center of our solar system—could cause unprecedented chaos the next time around, according to scientists. Even though the next peak, forecast to arrive in the first half of 2024, is expected to be weak on an astronomical scale, it could still disrupt everyday life for millions of people.
The warning comes as another research team prepares to test how blockchain technology might function, or fail, in space.
“The internet has come of age during a time when the sun has been relatively quiet, and now it’s entering a more active time,” George Mason University Professor Peter Becker told Fox Weather. “It’s the first time in human history that there’s been an intersection of increased solar activity with our dependence on the internet and global economic dependence on the internet.”
Solar flares and radiation are two phenomena scientists and engineers spend countless hours investigating to mitigate their impact on Earth and human technology. A solar flare is an intense localized eruption of electromagnetic radiation in the Sun’s atmosphere.
“Even minor space weather events can have major impacts,” notes NOAA. “After a successful launch from Cape Canaveral, Florida in early February 2022, minor geomagnetic storming caused 38 of 49 SpaceX Starlink satellites to fail to reach their final orbit, instead burning up during unplanned reentry into Earth’s atmosphere.”
And that solar event was correctly predicted by scientists well ahead of time.
A future solar outburst, if determined to be headed toward Earth, would mean humans have only “about 18 hours of warning, maybe 24 hours of warning, before those particles actually get to Earth and start messing with Earth’s magnetic field,” Becker told the broadcaster.
According to Becker, large amounts of plasma or superheated matter bombarding the Earth can put electronics that are usually deemed safe or “grounded,” like fiber optic cables, navigation systems, communication equipment, and even satellites, at risk. This includes blockchain technology.
Last week, scientific testing gear from the University of Villanova hitched a SpaceX rocket to test how radiation in space would impact a blockchain and data flow. In the study, researchers beamed signals carrying blockchain data from space to Earth to see if a blockchain exposed to radiation would degrade transactions.
The researchers at Villanova told Decrypt they constantly monitor space weather and the Sun’s activities to see if and when it sends out large amounts of radiation because it has disabled or completely crippled satellites in the past.
“So there are two sources of radiation that we’re concerned with in space, and one is from the sun,” University of Villanova Adjunct Professor Hasshi Sudler told Decrypt. “If we have a very active sun going through what’s called coronal mass ejections (CMEs), it can eject enormous radiation particles at any given time.”
A CME is a massive expulsion of plasma and magnetic fields from the Sun’s corona, often occurring alongside solar flares, which are intense bursts of radiation. The Sun’s magnetic activity drives both phenomena and can impact Earth’s space environment.
“The recent launch that we just did with SpaceX rocket is designed to put the experiment in space for four to five years,” Sudler told Decrypt. “This gives us a much longer runway for performing various types of experiments on the integrity and dynamics of the network and radiation-induced errors.”
The study, Sudler explained, would send a satellite through the Van Allen belt, causing it to be saturated with radiation. The idea, Sudler said, is to see if the radiation causes the blockchain to “flip bits” or cause erroneous blockchain data to be sent from the blockchain node to the network because of radiation exposure.
“When you have large coronal mass ejections, you have essentially charged particles, small charges that, once they hit the electronics of the satellite, can confuse the circuits temporarily,” Sudler said. “Essentially, what’s happening is it’s getting into some type of memory state where it is changing how the memory of the software is held.”
He added that this event could have the node claim that one is a zero or vice versa.
“We’re lucky because the Earth has an atmosphere, and we have the Van Allen belt,” Sudler said. “It protects us from all of these charged particles, so we don’t worry about this problem on Earth.”
While the Villanova test is focused on beaming blockchain data back to Earth, Sudler is optimistic the study could lead to sending blockchains to the moon and beyond.
“Once you have a network well established around the Earth, you can begin extending the distance of that network as long as that distant satellite has another satellite to communicate with it’s reasonably close,” Sudler said. “Latency obviously becomes a question, but if you just gradually start expanding that workout from Earth to the moon, we’re looking at systems and projects where we can send a blockchain node around the moon and have that communicate with some satellites there and medium Earth orbit or low Earth orbit, and even out to Mars.”