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Second solar storm may stoke auroras

By Richard Stenger

View of the unexpectedly agitated sun through the extreme ultraviolet eye of the Solar and Heliospheric Observatory on October 30
View of the unexpectedly agitated sun through the extreme ultraviolet eye of the Solar and Heliospheric Observatory on October 30

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CNN's technology correspondent Daniel Sieberg explains the effects of a solar storm on Earth. (October 29)
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(CNN) -- A second shock wave of solar debris jarred the already wobbling magnetic field around the Earth on Thursday, which may coax colorful northern lights to dip deep into middle latitudes during the night.

But with satellite and utility operators already on notice, the new solar blast was not expected to cause major problems to electrical systems in orbit and on the ground.

Nevertheless, space weather forecasters cautioned that a severe geomagnetic storm could persist well into Friday, possibly disrupting some radio communications.

The music of the skies, however, may reward those who brave the autumn chill. The northern lights, mostly limited to the Arctic region, could extend far south into Europe and the continental United States, according to space scientists.

"The geomagnetic storm level is now severe," said Paal Brekke, a project scientist with the Solar and Heliospheric Observatory, a satellite that monitors solar activity. "If the storm level stays like this, we should be in for some nice auroras tonight."

Potshots from the sun

The space squall comes on the heels of another solar storm that struck Wednesday. They were hurled in our direction hours earlier by two of the 20 most powerful solar flares on record.

"It's like the Earth is looking right down the barrel of a giant gun pointed at us by the sun ... and it's taken two big shots at us," said John Kohl of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics.

The solar clouds, known as coronal mass ejections, or CMEs, contain thick streams of high-energy particles that can trigger electrical surges in power grids and spacecraft.

Warned in advance, utilities across North America have fine-tuned their electrical output to prevent surges, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Space Environment Center said.

Airplanes flying in extreme northern latitudes, however, have had minor problems with radio communications, but no flights have been stopped, according to Canadian aviation authorities.

In space, one or two Japanese satellites were knocked offline this weekend, possibly due to electrical problems connected with increased solar activity.

Duck and cover

Onboard the international space station, U.S. astronaut Mike Foale and Russian cosmonaut Alexander Kaleri have taken precautions to prevent radiation injury, as they are outside the protective envelope of the atmosphere.

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During peak exposure times, the two retreat to the living quarters on the orbiting outpost, which provides the best protection.

The double whammy of extremely powerful flares took space weather forecasters by surprise. For the most part, the sun has gradually quieted down since it reached the peak of an 11-year cycle of activity in late 2000.

"I have not seen anything like it in my entire career as a solar physicist. The probability of this happening is so low that it is a statistical anomaly," Kohl said.

CNN Sci-Tech Producer Kate Tobin and Space Producer David Santucci contributed to this report.

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