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Another Strong Magnetic Storm Pummels Earth

October 31, 2003|From Reuters

WASHINGTON — A second huge magnetic storm caused by a solar flare hit Earth on Thursday, just a day after an earlier one hurtled into the planet in what one astronomer called an unprecedented one-two punch.

"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 in Massachusetts.

Kohl, the lead investigator for an instrument aboard NASA's sun-watching SOHO spacecraft, said the probability of two huge flares aimed directly at Earth coming so close together, as they have this week, was "unprecedented ... so low that it is a statistical anomaly."

Although such magnetic storms do not directly endanger humans, the charged particles emitted from the sun can play havoc with electric grids, satellites and other equipment. They can also create spectacular displays of the northern and southern lights.

To brace for any possible energy surges, power plants from Sweden to New Jersey cut production to limit how much electricity was flowing over transmission grids. A Japanese communications satellite temporarily stopped operations earlier in the week.

Kohl said the second of the storms, known as coronal mass ejections, peeled off the sun Wednesday. Charged particles started arriving at Earth on Thursday morning.

The second blast from the sun was moving even faster than the first. And some particles from the first coronal ejection lingered even as the second onslaught continued, Kohl said.

Kohl said the first storm traveled at a top speed of 4.9 million mph, and the one that hit Thursday moved at 5.2 million mph.

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