Solar Storm Watch: A Pleasant Aurora or Power Grid Buster?

2012 is shaping up to be the year of the solar storm. In late January, the largest solar storm in years erupted, sending a cloud of particles streaming from the Sun toward Earth at 4.5 million mph. 

Now forecasters at NOAA's Space Weather Center have issued a warning that another storm -- potentially the biggest in five years -- is heading our way. When the charged particles released from Sun crash into us between 1AM EST and 5AM EST early Thursday morning, the event could disrupt power grids, satellites, air travel and GPS systems.

On the bright side, the high latitude regions of North America could be treated Thursday evening to the aurora borealis, or Northern Lights. That is, if the full moon doesn't spoil the show. 

The sun right now is reaching the peak of an 11-year cycle. When the last peak happened in 2002 scientists learned that while solar storms don't affect people, they wreak havoc on technology, such as GPS. What other new technological systems might be affected remains to be seen.

Here's the image from NASA:

Image courtesy of NASA.

Follow Daniel Honan on Twitter: @DanielHonan

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