Update on theSolar gas ball

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Thursday, June 08, 2000

Solar gas ball hurtling toward Earth at up to 1,000 kilometres per second But it's not Armageddon

An explosion on the sun has sent an enormous ball of searing gas hurtling towards Earth at speeds of up to 1,000 kilometres a second.

The gas is expected to hit the Earth's magnetic shield late tonight, generating a geomagnetic storm that could wreak havoc with power systems, communications and satellites.

It should also produce a spectacular display of northern lights.

Ken Tapping, head of the National Research Council's solar monitoring program, said the ball of gas -- "bigger than the Earth" -- may sound like Armageddon, but is emphatic that it's not.

There have been many similar storms before, such as one in 1989 that knocked out power across Quebec.

Dr. Tapping does not expect serious outages this week because power utilities have made efforts to insulate their systems from solar storms; however, satellites and communications systems may be particularly vulnerable.

Scientists realized on Tuesday that a big storm was brewing when a "tremendous" solar flare erupted. "It was so strong that the radio waves from the flare were picked up here at the observatory by radio telescopes that weren't even looking at the sun at the time," said Dr. Tapping, who works at the NRC observatory outside Penticton in British Columbia.

"It's very, very hot gas, mainly hydrogen, with magnetic fields frozen into it, so it behaves rather like a huge blob of rubber," Dr. Tapping said. "What's essentially happening is the Earth is having a huge rubbery blob thrown in its face at 1,000 kilometres a second."

When the gas slams into the magnetic shield surrounding Earth, it will compress the shield and generate large magnetic fluctuations in the field. "We should see a fairly significant magnetic storm," Dr. Tapping says.

One of the worst solar storms ever recorded occurred in 1989. It sent currents surging through power lines in Canada and northern Europe. Hydro-Quebec's system crashed, causing a province-wide power blackout that closed schools, businesses and airports. The U.S. Navy's main communications system was disabled, and a number of satellites were knocked out of position.

Although Dr. Tapping does not believe this week's storm will be nearly as severe, he does worry about its impact on space-based communications systems, whose numbers have grown rapidly since 1989.


-- Martin Thompson (mthom1927@aol.com), June 08, 2000

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