This year's most closely watched solar storm is sweeping over our planet right now, and so far the impact on satellites, power grids and communication networks is not as severe as some had feared, space weather experts say.
However, they cautioned that the storm could intensify as the day goes on.
Two strong solar flares erupted from the surface of the sun late Tuesday, blasting a wave of plasma and charged particles toward Earth. This eruption of material — called a coronal mass ejection, or CME — sped through space at 4 million mph (6.4 million kilometers per hour).
A monitoring satellite known as the Advanced Composition Explorer picked up the first signs of the CME's interaction with our planet's magnetic field around 5:45 a.m. ET Thursday, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Space Weather Prediction Center reported.
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"So far, the orientation of the magnetic field has been opposite of what is needed to cause the strongest storming," the center said in its updated forecast. "As the event progresses, that field will continue to change."
As of midmorning ET, the level of geomagnetic disruption was relatively minor, in the G1 category. But space weather forecasters said they expected the storming to intensify. "Based on overall strength, the predictions for periods reaching the G3 level look justified," they said in the forecast.
Space weather officials said they expected the CME to add to an odd combination of intense magnetic, radio and radiation emissions — which could resulting in the strongest overall solar storm since December 2006, even though the flare that triggered it was not the largest. They noted that the storm is not hitting Earth head-on but is instead delivering a glancing blow to the planet.
Earth was already in the midst of a significant solar radiation storm, which can interfere with satellites in space and power grids on the ground, said Joseph Kunches, a space weather scientist at the Space Weather Prediction Center. Aircraft that fly over the Earth's polar regions may experience communication issues as well, and some commercial airliners have already taken precautionary steps, Kunches said.
"There is the potential for induced currents in power grids," Kunches told reporters Wednesday. "Power grid operators have all been alerted. It could start to cause some unwanted induced currents."
The effects of the storm may possibly linger into Friday, Kunches said.
"Such a CME could result in a severe geomagnetic storm, causing aurora at low latitudes, with possible disruption to high frequency radio communication, global positioning systems (GPS) and power grids," NASA scientists said in a statement.
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The geomagnetic activity enhanced normal aurora displays (also known as the northern and southern lights). "Skywatchers at all latitudes should be alert for auroras," astronomer Tony Phillips wrote on his website Spaceweather.com, which monitors space weather events.
This report was updated by msnbc.com.
If you snap an amazing photo of the northern lights sparked by these sun storms and would like to share it for a possible story or image gallery, please contact Space.com managing editor Tariq Malik at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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