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Since 1st March, 1999
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Sun sends a hot-air headache
- Bubble behemoth at breakneck speed can hit power, cellphones

London, Oct. 29 (Reuters): A massive bubble of gas that could cause havoc with power grids and satellite systems hit the Earth’s magnetic field this morning and is likely to have the biggest impact in Alaska and the Far East.

Scientists said the cloud of charged particles unleashed at high speeds by a hyperactive Sun and known as a coronal mass ejection (CME) travelled at 8 million km an hour.

CMEs come around every few years but the one that came today is one of the strongest. Described as more of a nuisance than a danger to human life, they disrupt mobile phone signals and can cause major headaches for power, satellite communications and navigational companies.

“It arrived at six this morning (11.30 IST) and was going much faster than people thought,” Mike Hapgood, a space expert at the Appleton Laboratory in England, told Reuters.

The gaseous cloud that dumps energy into the magnetic field that surrounds the Earth, creating a geomagnetic storm, is unlikely to have much of an impact in Europe.

But Hapgood and other scientists suspect the CME produced an amazing aurora, or light show, over Alaska and the Far East, as well as some radio communication problems.

“The higher up you are...the bigger the effect you see,” said Lucie Green, a solar physicist at the Mullard Space Science Laboratory in England.

Fortunately, there are not many large power grids in the far north so energy disruptions would be minimised, scientists said.

But, out in space, it could cause interference with satellites and spacecraft.

“There were some problems starting yesterday because of the effects that precede the arrival of this shock wave from the Sun. Satellites would certainly be affected and that may persist over several days,” Hapgood added.

“If you’re very unlucky these things can cause power grid failures but it is very rare,” Hapgood said.

The effects of a CME could last a few hours or a few days. In 1989, a CME affected power grids in Canada.

“That was the wake-up call. I think most of the power companies are aware of these problems. If they know it is coming they can take precautions,” Hapgood added.

Green believes Canada could experience more problems because it is so far north and its power grids stretch east to west, which happens to be the right configuration to be affected by the particles that hit the Earth.

Today’s massive CME was propelled towards the Earth by a huge solar flare that erupted yesterday. It was classified as a G-5, the strongest category, and was travelling much faster than other CMEs.

The scale of it and the fact that it was heading towards the Earth is what makes this one so special.

“There is a whole period of activity on the Sun that is driving this. It may continue for a week or two so we may get more of these events coming from the Sun,” said Hapgood.

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