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Strong solar storm hitting Earth

An image taken Sunday by NASA shows a solar flare erupting on the sun, part of a big storm.

NASA

An image taken Sunday by NASA shows a solar flare erupting on the sun, part of a big storm.

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 about 11 p.m. EST Sunday and will hit Earth with three different effects. The biggest issue is radiation, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Space Weather Prediction Center in Colorado.

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

Radiation from Sunday's flare arrived at Earth an hour later and will likely continue through Wednesday. Levels are considered strong but other storms have been more severe. 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 mph.

A solar eruption is followed by a one-two-three punch, said Antti Pulkkinen, a 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, the coronal mass ejection — that's the plasma from the sun itself — hits. Usually that travels at about 1 or 2 million miles per hour, but this storm is particularly speedy and is shooting out at 4 million miles per hour, Biesecker said.

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 it is likely to go north of Earth.

Strong solar storm hitting Earth 01/23/12 [Last modified: Monday, January 23, 2012 9:26pm]
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