Huge Magnetic Storm May Wreak Havoc

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THE GIST

— NASA spacecraft caught videos of the solar flare as it hurled a wave of plasma and charged particles.

— The solar eruptions may cause havoc for 24 hours.

— Airplanes that fly over the polar caps could experience communications issues during this time.

A massive solar flare that erupted from the sun late Tuesday (March 6) is unleashing one of the most powerful solar storms in more than five years, a solar tempest that may potentially interfere with satellites in orbit and power grids when it reaches Earth.

"Space weather has gotten very interesting over the last 24 hours," Joseph Kunches, a space weather scientist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), told reporters today (March 7). "This was quite the Super Tuesday — you bet."

Several NASA spacecraft caught videos of the solar flare as it hurled a wave of solar plasma and charged particles, called a coronal mass ejection (CME), into space. The CME is not expected to hit Earth directly, but the cloud of charged particles could deliver a glancing blow to the planet.

Early predictions estimate that the CME will reach Earth tomorrow (March 8) at 7 a.m. EST (1200 GMT), with the effects likely lasting for 24 hours, and possibly lingering into Friday, Kunches said.

The solar eruptions occurred late Tuesday night when the sun let loose two huge X-class solar flares that ranked among the strongest type of sun storms. The biggest of those flares registered as an X5.4-class solar storm on the space weather scale, making it the strongest sun eruption so far this year. [See photos & videos of the solar storm]

Typically, CMEs contain 10 billion tons of solar plasma and material, and the CME triggered by last night's X5.4-class flare is the one that could disrupt satellite operations, Kunches said.

"When the shock arrives, the expectation is for heightened geomagnetic storm activity and the potential for heightened solar radiation," Kunches said.

This heightened geomagnetic activity and increase in solar radiation could impact satellites in space and power grids on the ground. Some high-precision GPS users could also be affected, he said.

"There is the potential for induced currents in power grids," Kunches said. "Power grid operators have all been alerted. It could start to cause some unwanted induced currents."

Airplanes that fly over the polar caps could also experience communications issues during this time, and some commercial airliners have already taken precautionary actions, Kunches said. Powerful solar storms can also be hazardous to astronauts in space, and NOAA is working close with NASA's Johnson Space Center to determine if the six residents of the International Space Station need to take shelter in more protected areas of the orbiting laboratory, he added.

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