Impact of solar storm less than feared

March 8, 2012 at 2:31 PM
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WASHINGTON, March 8 (UPI) -- A massive solar storm hitting Earth is having less impact on satellites, power grids and communications than some had feared, U.S. space weather experts say.

Two strong solar flares erupted from the surface of the sun late Tuesday, emitting a stream of plasma and charged particles at 4 million mph toward Earth that arrived early Thursday, reported.

A monitoring satellite picked up the first signs of the stream's interaction with Earth's magnetic field around 5:45 a.m. EST, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Space Weather Prediction Center reported.

The storm is not hitting Earth head-on but is instead delivering a glancing blow to the planet, NOAA said.

"So far, the orientation of the magnetic field has been opposite of what is needed to cause the strongest storming," the center said in its updated forecast.

However, it said, the storm's effects could get stronger throughout the day and could linger through Friday morning. The storm could disrupt radio signals, satellite networks and GPS services.

U.S. airlines diverted long-haul flights that pass near the North Pole because of the risk posed by intense bursts of electromagnetic radiation at high latitudes, the British newspaper The Independent reported.

The shock wave could also disrupt Earth's magnetic field, compressing it on the day side and extending outward on the night side, scientists said.

The particles will hit Mars as well as Earth and pass by several NASA spacecraft, NASA said.

Besides the possible disruptions, the storm will likely create auroras -- known as the aurora borealis, or Northern Lights, in northern latitudes -- in North America Thursday evening.

Auroras -- which illuminate the northern horizon as a greenish glow or sometimes a faint red, as if the sun were rising from an unusual direction -- could dip as far south as the Great Lakes between Canada and the United States or even lower, Joe Kunches, a scientist for NOAA in Boulder, Colo., told The Christian Science Monitor.

But the full moon could obscure any viewing, he said.

The aurora borealis were named after the Roman goddess of dawn, Aurora, and the Greek word for the north wind, boreas, by French philosopher-astronomer Pierre Gassendi in 1621.

In 1989, a strong solar storm knocked out the power grid in Quebec, causing 6 million people to lose power.

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