Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Strongest solar storm since 2005 hitting Earth

The sun is bombarding Earth with radiation from the biggest solar storm in more than six years with more to come from the fast-moving eruption. The solar flare occurred at about 11 pm EST and will hit Earth with three different effects at three different times.

Doug Biesecker, a solar physicist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Space Weather Prediction Center, says the storm may reach a level that could render natural light displays visible as far south as Idaho and New York, and even Illinois and Oregon, in the United States.

The biggest issue is radiation. The radiation is mostly a concern for satellite disruptions and astronauts in space. It can cause communication problems for polar-traveling airplanes, said space weather center physicist Doug Biesecker.

Radiation from the flare arrived at Earth an hour later and will likely continue through Jan 25. Levels are considered strong but other storms have been more severe. Still, this storm is the strongest for radiation since May 2005. The radiation in the form of protons came flying out of the sun at 93 million miles per hour. "The whole volume of space between here and Jupiter is just filled with protons and you just don't get rid of them like that," Biesecker said. That's why the effects will stick around for a couple days.

A solar eruption is followed by a one-two-three punch according to physicist at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland and Catholic University. First comes electromagnetic radiation, followed by radiation in the form of protons. Then, finally the coronal mass ejection - that's the plasma from the sun itself - hits.

Usually that travels at about two or three million kilometres per hour, but this storm is particularly speedy and is shooting out at six million kilometres per hour. It's the plasma that causes much of the noticeable problems on Earth, such as electrical grid outages. 

In 1989, a solar storm caused a massive blackout in Quebec. It can also pull the northern lights further south. But this coronal mass ejection seems likely to be only moderate, with a chance for becoming strong, Biesecker said. The worst of the storm is likely to go north of Earth.