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Sun aims powerful flares at Earth

Top: Two large sunspot groups are visible in this image of the sun obtained by the Solar and Heliospheric Observatory (SOHO). Below: This SOHO image shows a large filament eruption that occurred February 26. The disk in the center is a mask that blocks out direct sunlight.  

March 1, 2000
Web posted at: 3:24 p.m. EST (2024 GMT)

(CNN) -- The sun should place the Earth squarely in its sights this week as it aims its solar ray gun. Astronomers tell terrestrial dwellers not to sweat it too much, despite the fact that solar activity is approaching an 11-year peak.

Two large sunspots moving across the surface of the sun are expected to directly face the Earth soon for up to several days, according to solar scientists. Such sunspots often herald powerful coronal mass ejections and solar flares, space storms that can disrupt weather and electrical systems on Earth.

Solar flares are the largest explosions in the solar system. A typical one can release the energy equivalent of millions of 100-megaton hydrogen bombs exploding at once.

Highly charged particles from large flares can overload power grids and damage satellites. In 1989, one space storm knocked out a major power plant in Canada, leaving millions without power for hours.

Solar activity generally waxes and wanes during an 11-year cycle and astronomers expect it to peak either this or next year. But so far, the sun has produced only a "disappointing" level of fireworks, said Joseph Gurman, a solar physicist who analyzes data from the Solar and Heliospheric Observatory.

  SOLAR CINEMA
See the greatest light show in the solar system explode into dazzling but dangerous plumes
 
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Coronal mass ejections are much more likely to produce effects, Gurman said. Like flares, they send streams of highly charged particles, but they also can emit a billion tons of plasma, or ionized gas.

Fortunately the Earth's magnetosphere usually bears the brunt of plasma particles. "If we were exposed to them, we literally would be fried," Gurman said.



RELATED STORIES:
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February 9, 2000

RELATED SITES:
SOHO Home page
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