A massive explosion on the sun's surface has triggered the largest solar radiation storm since 2005 and has unleashed a torrent of charged plasma particles toward Earth, though the threat to satellites, power grids and other high-tech hardware is believed to be manageable, scientists said.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration detected a solar flare on Sunday night that peaked at 10:59 p.m. Eastern time. NOAA satellites traced the bright flash of X-ray light to an area on the sun's surface known as region 1402 -- the same area that had produced a weaker flare on Thursday. A coronal mass ejection -- which can hurl billions of tons of plasma at to 5 million miles an hour -- quickly followed.
Radiation from the explosion arrived at Earth within hours of the flash, said Doug Biesecker, a physicist with NOAA's Space Weather Prediction Center in Boulder, Colo. A burst of charged plasma particles is expected to reach Earth by 9 a.m. Tuesday. That charged plasma is traveling uncommonly fast, making the 93 million-mile trip to Earth in about 34 hours, rather than taking two or more days, as is usually the case, Biesecker said.
Sunday's radiation storm is the strongest since May 2005, when another happened that was perhaps 10 percent larger, Biesecker said. Based on the amount of radiation emitted, both storms measure about a three on a scale of one to five.
While the plasma may cause otherworldly displays of light and color in some parts of the sky Tuesday night, the bombardment of energetic particles can wreak havoc on Earth -- potentially downing GPS systems, wiping out power grids, destroying sensitive satellite equipment in orbit and exposing astronauts to fatal doses of radiation.
As a precaution Monday, some flights were rerouted around polar regions, where the flash flood of charged plasma particles may interfere with navigation systems. Others flew at lower altitudes to reduce the risk of radiation exposure.
Though it had been more than six years since the last storm of this magnitude, storms of this size are expected to become more frequent as a period of peak solar activity approaches in 2013.
"As we ramp up to the solar maximum next year, this sort of storm will become normal," Biesecker said.
Scientists still don't know how to predict these solar events -- which is a problem because they deliver a triple threat to technology on Earth, said Stanford solar astronomer Todd Hoeksema.
X-rays traveling at the speed of light hit the Earth in about eight minutes. These can interfere with radio communications.
A burst of radiation traveling at near-light speeds begins pelting Earth 20 minutes to an hour later. This radiation causes what are known as "single event upsets." Essentially, a high-energy proton traveling through a satellite can interfere with the charges in the silicon-based hardware, which can cause it to spit out spurious signals.
The third and final attack comes from the burst of charged particles that affects Earth's magnetosphere, potentially interfering with airplane navigation systems. This particular worry is expected to force rerouting of some flights during the storm.
These are not hypothetical fears, Biesecker said. For example, the infamous October 2003 "Halloween storm" took out Japan's ADEOS-II spacecraft, among other victims, causing the approximately $600 million satellite to fail less than a year after its launch.
"With all the technology of our advanced civilization, solar storms can have significant effects on communication, power, things like that," said University of California, Berkeley physicist Robert Lin. "The really big ones can have an enormous effect on space weather on the Earth."
But most satellites built today should be relatively safe from mid-level storms such as the current one, said NOAA research scientist Juan Rodriguez. Modern satellites are built to withstand space weather as severe as a 1989 storm that caused a massive power outage in Canada's Quebec province.
That said, those looking for a light show on Tuesday night might be in for a treat. Rodriguez said that "in Canada, maybe in the northern United States," the aurora borealis will be "a pretty amazing sight."
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