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Strong solar storm on its way toward Earth

Jan. 23, 2012 at 4:08 PM   |   Comments

BOULDER, Colo., Jan. 23 (UPI) -- A solar storm of energetic radiation and charged plasma could disrupt GPS signals and the electrical grid, U.S. space weather experts said.

Scientists at the Space Weather Prediction Center, part of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in Boulder, Colo., have issued a geomagnetic storm watch. The agency said it is the strongest solar radiation storm since May 2005.

"With the radiation storm in progress now, satellite operators could be experiencing trouble, and there are probably impacts as well to high frequency [radio] communications in polar regions," Doug Biesecker, a physicist at the center, told The Washington Post.

Such radio blackouts can force airlines to reroute flights at high latitudes between North America and Europe or Asia.

NASA scientists said the storm should peak about 9 a.m. EST Tuesday, although uncertainty in the prediction means the storm could peak up to seven hours earlier or later,

"It's not going to be a catastrophe, but there could be noticeable geomagnetic current induced on the electrical grid," said Michael Hesse of NASA's Space Weather Laboratory at the Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md.

The storm began Sunday night with a burst of X-rays shooting out of a sunspot followed by a huge explosion of plasma, known as a coronal mass ejection.

The bulk of the plasma cloud is speeding toward Earth at around 4.5 million mph, Hesse said.

"We're going to be monitoring this," he said. "The models we use to predict these events are not correct all the time. But at the moment, it looks like it will be pretty interesting."

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