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Solar storm headed toward Earth may disrupt power

March 7, 2012 12:00:00 AM PST
The largest solar storm in five years is racing toward Earth, threatening to disrupt power grids and airplane flights.

The sun erupted Tuesday night, and the effects should start hitting Earth at about 7 a.m. ET Thursday, according to forecasters at the Space Weather Prediction Center.

Officials say the flare is growing as it speeds outward from the sun and will be traveling at 4 million mph when the charged particles hit Earth. The solar storm is likely to last through Friday morning.

"It's hitting us right in the nose," said Joe Kunches, a scientist for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. He called it the sun's version of "Super Tuesday."

Forecasters say for North America, the "good" part of a solar storm - the one that creates more noticeable auroras or Northern Lights - will peak Thursday night. Auroras could dip as far south as the Great Lakes states or lower, but a full moon will make them harder to see.

The solar storm also brings with it a potential for widespread problems. There are three ways it can disrupt technology on Earth: with magnetic, radio and radiation emissions.

The magnetic part of the storm has the potential to trip electrical power grids. Solar storms can also make global positioning systems less accurate. They can also cause communication problems and added radiation around the north and south poles, which will probably force airlines to reroute flights.

Satellites could be affected by the storm, too. NASA spokesman Rob Navias said the space agency isn't taking any extra precautions to protect astronauts on the International Space Station from added radiation from the solar storm.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.