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A powerful eruption on the sun disrupted radio signals on earth

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

There was a big eruption just a few days ago on the sun, a powerful solar flare launching particles that reached the Earth just eight minutes later and disrupting radio signals in Central and South America. To learn more about it, we're joined by India Jackson. She studies the sun and space weather and is an astrophysics Ph.D. candidate at Georgia State University in Atlanta. Welcome to the program.

INDIA JACKSON: Hi. Thanks for having me.

RASCOE: What exactly is a solar flare? Like, what's going on with the sun when that happens?

JACKSON: Inside of the sun, there are a lot of physical processes going on. So we have magnetic reconnection particles slamming into each other. And that can cause X-rays, gamma rays to spit out and radiation and solar energetic particles to be released from the sun.

RASCOE: And then how often does that happen? Does that just happen every day, every - you know? Or - I don't know if the sun is on a different time scale.

JACKSON: I mean, well, we can have solar activity every day, but we do have solar cycles. We have solar minimums and solar maximum. Solar minimum is just basically kind of, like, when the sun is quiet, so it's not too much going on. But solar maximum is where the sun is just extremely active. So we have a lot of flares, and with that comes the radiation and the blackout that we got a couple days ago.

RASCOE: Oh, so what do those particles do? The radiation and all that stuff - what does it do?

JACKSON: They are called solar energetic particles. They are high energy. And they can damage, like, human DNA at a low scale. It can cause damage to some of our satellites and have them stop working because it's such high energy, and it's so hot. And with space weather prediction, which is what I do, we try to forecast when those things will happen because what we don't want is for something catastrophic to occur, like, you know, destroying our power grids.

RASCOE: Do we have any way to prevent that?

JACKSON: Oh, God, no.

(LAUGHTER)

RASCOE: No, no.

JACKSON: No, no, no.

RASCOE: That's not...

JACKSON: We cannot...

RASCOE: We don't want to hear that, India.

JACKSON: We cannot prevent the sun from doing what she going to do.

RASCOE: OK.

JACKSON: But what we can do is try to forecast what's going to happen and to try to protect ourselves, our astronauts and our technology.

RASCOE: And so with the radiation - and I know you said it can affect human DNA - like, is there anything to be done to avoid that? Or - you know, 'cause that...

JACKSON: Sunscreen.

RASCOE: Sunscreen. Oh, OK. So that prevents that, too. So wear the sunscreen?

JACKSON: I mean, we ain't going to prevent too much of nothing, but, you know, sunscreen protects you from those UV rays.

RASCOE: Oh.

JACKSON: And you should wear it anyway, but...

RASCOE: But it could help a bit with some of the rays coming from these solar flares.

JACKSON: Yes.

RASCOE: That's astrophysicist India Jackson telling us all about last week's solar flare. Thank you so much for joining us.

JACKSON: Thank you for having me. I appreciate the opportunity. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Ayesha Rascoe is a White House correspondent for NPR. She is currently covering her third presidential administration. Rascoe's White House coverage has included a number of high profile foreign trips, including President Trump's 2019 summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi, Vietnam, and President Obama's final NATO summit in Warsaw, Poland in 2016. As a part of the White House team, she's also a regular on the NPR Politics Podcast.