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Solar flare heading toward Earth

orange sun

April 8, 1997
Web posted at: 11:09 p.m. EDT (0309 GMT)

(CNN) -- The sun has produced a storm the likes of which scientists have not seen before, according to a NASA researcher.

The large flare of magnetic energy is expected to hit Earth's upper atmosphere Wednesday afternoon, according to Art Poland, senior scientist with the Solar and Heliosphere Observatory (SOHO) at the Goddard Space Center in Maryland.

SOHO is a relatively new NASA satellite that is pointed at the sun.

The solar flare was formed Monday when the sun generated a giant shock wave of electrified gases called a coronal mass ejection. SOHO photographs show "a flare going off; you see a shock wave leaving (the sun). Basically, it's a tsunami going across the surface of the sun," Poland said in an interview with CNN.


Solar events like this occur every day. Approximately one in 10 heads toward Earth. But this solar flare is about as large as one that destroyed a broadcast satellite in January.

There have been 43 cases of satellite damage as a result of solar flares, according to astrophysicist George Lake, a NASA project scientist. The flares inflict damage by sending a powerful current through the satellites, creating "miniature power plants," according to Lake. (30 sec. / 704K AIFF or WAV sound)icon

Scientists say they don't know exactly what kind of problems this solar event could cause and what is in its path. Solar-monitoring satellites will provide only one hour's notice of the wave's arrival. Similar events have triggered power outages and interfered with spacecraft operations.


"If the magnetic orientation is opposite to the Earth's magnetic field and all the conditions are right -- what that means I don't know, that's what we're really trying to learn -- it could really interfere with the Earth's magnetic field and then have an impact on us," Poland said.

The solar flare will pose no threat to life on Earth, he said.

But "it is the kind of thing that might create some spectacular viewing in the heavens," said Lake. The aurora borealis, or Northern Lights, might appear brighter.

This event apparently is a sign of things to come. Scientists say solar activity will increase and peak in the next four to five years.

Correspondent Dick Wilson contributed to this report.


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