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Giant sunspot spawns space storm heading our way

The sunspot in the upper right is 13 times the size of Earth

(CNN) -- Two powerful bursts of solar energy heading toward Earth emerged near the largest sunspot in a decade. The so-called coronal mass ejections could produce strong auroras and disrupt communications when they reach our planet over the weekend.

At the peak of an 11-year cycle of activity, the sun has become increasingly excited in recent weeks. Turbulent sunspot storms become epidemic on the surface of the sun during such times of solar maximum.

Solar scientists recently spotted a gigantic storm known as active region 9393, from where a pair of intense solar flares originated earlier this week.

These pictures were taken between March 20 and 24 in Fairbanks, Alaska, by Jan Curtis with The Alaska Climate Research Center


"The fast-growing sunspot now covers an area of the solar disk equivalent to the surface area of 13 planet Earths. That makes it the largest sunspot of the current solar cycle," said Paal Brekke, a European researcher with The Solar and Heliospheric Observatory.

The sunspot is so large it can be seen without magnification through pinhole projectors and certain types of solar filters. Astronomers warn sky watchers not to look at the sun with the naked eye.

Directed toward Earth, CMEs can distort Earth's magnetic field, producing in extreme latitudes colorful nocturnal sky displays known as auroras, or the Northern and Southern Lights.

U.S. space scientists predict that the latest salvos of CMEs will produce auroras during the nights of Friday or Saturday.

People in Alaska have witnessed some of the best auroras in years, after a CME struck the magnetosphere last week, according to, a NASA-affiliated Web site. They were also memorable in Finland.

This aurora was photographed near the University of Oulu in Finland on March 19, 2001  

"The most intense phases of that display were simply unbelievable! For a few minutes it was so bright that the dark evening almost turned into day," said Tom Eklund, who photographed the auroras.

The heightened solar activity could produce a steady stream of spectacular auroras for months, according to astronomers.

Solar eruptions can also trigger magnetic storms around our planet, damaging electrical and communications systems in orbit and on the ground.

Such outbursts sometimes take bizarre twists and turns before reaching the planet. Fast solar eruptions can overtake and consume their slower predecessors, scientists announced this week.

They discovered the so-called "cannibal coronal mass ejections" by studying radio and visual measurements from two different NASA satellites.

The collisions can change the speed of the eruptions and may prolong the duration of magnetic storms over Earth.

"Coronal mass ejection cannibalism is the most violent form of interaction between CMEs," said Natchimuthuk Gopalswamy of NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center.

solar cannibalism
This image sequence is a computer animation that illustrates one coronal mass ejection gobbling another in an act of cannibalism  

"This happens when a slow moving CME is expelled before a fast one. The fast one simply gobbles up the slow one," he said.

Young stars rock their cradle in Hubble pic
March 28, 2001
Venus creates twilight spectacle
February 22, 2001
Sun flips magnetic field
February 16, 2001
Solar energy offers relief to power crisis
February 1, 2001
Another strong solar flare heads toward Earth
July 14, 2000

NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center's Aurora Gallery
Jan Curtis' images of the aurora
Jouni Jussila's Aurora Page
Tom Eklund's Aurora Page

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4:30pm ET, 4/16

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