A massive wave of radiation from the sun–the most intense since 2006–is walloping Earth today, according to the Space Weather Prediction Center (SWPC), a division of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).
This ball of plasma and charged particles, called a coronal mass ejection (CME), is causing the second major magnetic storm in Earth’s magnetic field this week. The latest solar outburst originated in a monster solar flare that erupted from the surface of the sun on Tuesday, March 6. Several NASA satellites videoed the flare as it hurled the CME toward Earth. Traveling through space at 4 million miles (6.4 million kilometers) per hour, the CME first hit Earth shortly after midnight. Fortunately, the eruption sideswiped Earth rather than hitting it head-on.
CME’s are the strongest type of solar eruptions, releasing enough energy to supply all of Earth’s commercial energy needs for more than 12,000 years. The magnetic storms they cause have the potential to seriously disrupt radio and satellite communications, including GPS signals and airline communications, and electric power transmission. The charged particles also may produce displays of the northern lights much farther south than normal. Authorities said the effects of the current storm could last for 24 hours. The CME was not expected to affect the health of people on Earth’s surface.
On Sunday, March 4, another flare–the most powerful of 2012 so far–erupted from a different sunspot. That CME hit Earth’s magnetic field on the night of Wednesday, March 7. Radiation from that storm was still creating turbulence in Earth’s magnetic field when the second storm arrived. The sun is currently entering a more active phase, after several years of quiet. Solar activity varies over a period of about 11 years. The current cycle is expected to reach its peak in 2013.
Learn more about the universe with a coffee table book about galaxies and the universe from World Book.
Last updated: May 21 2012