Sun hurls strong geomagnetic storm toward Earth

WASHINGTON Mon Jan 23, 2012 5:35pm EST

1 of 2. The Solar Dynamics Observatory captures an M8.7 class flare in a handout photo released by NASA January 23, 2012. The flare is shown here in teal as that is the color typically used to show light in the 131 Angstrom wavelength, a wavelength in which it is easy to view solar flares. The flare began at 10:38 PM ET on January 22, 2012, peaked at 10:59 PM and ended at 11:34 PM.

Credit: Reuters/NASA/SDO/AIA/Handout

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WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The strongest geomagnetic storm in more than six years was forecast to hit Earth's magnetic field on Tuesday, and it could affect airline routes, power grids and satellites, the U.S. Space Weather Prediction Center said.

A coronal mass ejection - a big chunk of the Sun's atmosphere - was hurled toward Earth on Sunday, driving energized solar particles at about 5 million miles an hour (2,000 km per second), about five times faster than solar particles normally travel, the center's Terry Onsager said.

"When it hits us, it's like a big battering ram that pushes into Earth's magnetic field," Onsager said from Boulder, Colorado. "That energy causes Earth's magnetic field to fluctuate."

This energy can interfere with high frequency radio communications used by airlines to navigate close to the North Pole in flights between North America, Europe and Asia, so some routes may need to be shifted, Onsager said.

It could also affect power grids and satellite operations, the center said in a statement. Astronauts aboard the International Space Station may be advised to shield themselves in specific parts of the spacecraft to avoid a heightened dose of solar radiation, Onsager said.

The space weather center said the geomagnetic storm's intensity would probably be moderate or strong, levels two and three on a five-level scale, five being the most extreme.

(Reporting By Deborah Zabarenko, Environment Correspondent; Editing by Mohammad Zargham)

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