The sun has unleashed a solar flare of the magnitude that glanced off Earth’s northern magnetic pole in late January, NASA scientists say—only this one is headed straight toward us.
Like that and another January one, it may ignite the aurora borealis. Polar planes were rerouted after a January 22 flare, which reached Earth about two days later and hit the northern polar region. But it may not end there. The radiation and other debris from the current flare may very well cause disruptions to GPS systems, satellites and the grid, NASA said in a news release.
The storm stems from two flares, or Coronal Mass Ejections (CMEs) that occurred within an hour of each other, NASA said. At around 7 p.m. on March 6 the sun let loose a category X5.4 flare, its largest since an X6.9 on August 9, 2011.
An hour later another one burst out, an X1.3, nearly five times stronger than an X5, NASA said. It's also more powerful than the X2-class flare emitted by sunspot 1402 on January 27, whose debris dealt Earth a mere glancing blow.
The sun is in a period of increased activity during its routine 11-year cycle, NASA pointed out, but this isn’t even solar maximum, given that the activity won’t peak till late 2013.
As of 2:30 p.m. EST, NASA said debris from the two CMEs was headed toward Earth.
“The first is traveling faster than 1,300 miles per second; the second more than 1,100 miles per second,” NASA said on the Space Weather Prediction Center website. “NASA's models predict that the CMEs will impact both Earth and Mars, as well as pass by several NASA spacecraft.”
NASA said the leading edge of the first CME could reach us at 1:25 a.m. Thursday morning, give or take seven hours. “Such a CME could result in a severe geomagnetic storm, causing aurora at low latitudes, with possible disruption to high frequency radio communication, global positioning systems (GPS), and power grids.”
Since this will occur mostly along the poles, some airlines have already rerouted their polar routes, CBS News and the Associated Press reported.
Thursday evening will be the peak aurora borealis times, Space.com said, with northern lights potentially reaching as far south as the Great Lakes in the U.S.
Below, NASA's video of what's on its way.