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Solar storm doesn't bash Earth but more are coming

Magnetic fields not hit as badly as had been expected; airlines divert flights over poles (See video below)

March 8, 2012 03:51 PM ET

Computerworld - The solar storm buffeting the Earth on Thursday isn't as bad as physicists had expected, but there's still a chance it could get worse before it's over.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) warned that a few hundred solar storms can be expected over the next decade.

A solar flare and a coronal mass ejection, which is a burst of solar wind, that erupted on the sun earlier this week began hitting the Earth's magnetic field early Thursday. The solar storm, which is expected to continue through Friday morning, is not as bad as scientists had expected.

However, physicist and NOAA's space weather scientist Joseph Kunches said there's still a chance the solar storm will increase in intensity before it's over.

"It's still coming," Kunches said at a press conference. "The magnetic storm still could intensify... Given the strength of the current storm, there shouldn't be any significant impacts. If the storm intensifies, though, it could be a different set of circumstances."

The NOAA issued warnings that the solar storm could be strong enough to disrupt GPS systems, communications and electronic devices. However, on Thursday. NOAA rated the storm a G1, which is a low-level occurrence. The agency said it is only aware of communications at the poles being affected.

Over the past 24 hours, some airlines have diverted flights that normally travel over the North and South Poles because they were trying to avoid communication problems, Kunches said.

The high radiation levels associated with solar eruptions can affect high-frequency communications, such as the ones often used by airlines, the military and mariners. The communication networks most often affected are in the polar regions, he said.

The European Space Agency (ESA) reported that the solar storm Wednesday "blinded" the Venus Express spacecraft, which is orbiting Venus and is much closer to the Sun than Earth.

The solar storm affected the spacecraft's star-tracker cameras, which help it measure its position and orientation in space.

"The Mission Control Team has taken the star-trackers out of service and is maintaining the spacecraft's altitude using gyroscopes until the solar effects fade," said Octavio Camino, an operations manager with the ESA, in a statement.

Kunches noted that there have been no further solar eruptions on the sun since the flare and coronal mass ejection occurred Wednesday.

"This was a significant event," he said. "It's been pretty quiet for 24 hours, but it could easily erupt again and it could shoot something past the Earth fairly fast."

Kunches also pointed out that Earth has moved into a period when there could be a high number of solar flares erupting on the sun.

"This is the season when we can expect more of these events," he said. "We can expect something like a couple hundred of these over the next 11 years. The trick is to try to help people understand which ones have the potential to be the most impactful."

Late this past January, the Earth was hit by a solar storm caused by the largest solar flare in more than six years. Most people didn't notice, some GPS systems, airline communications and satellites were affected for 24 to 48 hours.

The sun erupted with the largest solar flare in years, expelling coronal mass ejections that are traveling to Earth at speeds of more than 600 miles a second.

covers the Internet and Web 2.0, emerging technologies, and desktop and laptop chips for Computerworld. Follow Sharon on Twitter at Twitter @sgaudin, on or subscribe to Sharon's RSS feed Gaudin RSS. Her email address is sgaudin@computerworld.com.

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