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Image: Solar flare
NASA / SDO
This extreme ultraviolet image from NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory shows the sun as it unleashed an X5.4-class solar flare on March 6. The flare appears as the bright spot in the upper left
updated 3/8/2012 11:52:53 AM ET 2012-03-08T16:52:53

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 tmalik@space.com.

Follow Space.com for the latest in space science and exploration news on Twitter @Spacedotcomand on  Facebook.

© 2013 Space.com. All rights reserved. More from Space.com.

Video: Solar flare set to zing Earth

  1. Closed captioning of: Solar flare set to zing Earth

    >> heard, the largest solar storm in five years is careening into earth today where it is set to zing our utility grids, airline grids, satellites and other communications. tom costello has more from washington. good morning.

    >> reporter: good morning. this is a cool story. the scientists call it a coronal mass ejection . the outer atmosphere of the sun has been blown off sending a massive plasma cloud full of charged particles our way. the worst hit around 5:00 a.m . eastern time . so far no problems with gps or satellite systems or high frequency radio systems although it's possible and that's what we'll be watching all day. this is part of the sun's 11-year cycle which is supposed to reach its most active phase next year. expecrts say there is no danger on earth but some airlines that fly over the north pole rerouted flights to ensure communications aren't disrupted. there were reports of fantastic northern lights as far south as michigan . this was overnight in michigan . again, no serious disruptions so far.

    >> hopefully we enjoy the beautiful images from michigan there. tom, thanks.

Photos: Month in Space: January 2014

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  1. Southern stargazing

    Stars, galaxies and nebulas dot the skies over the European Southern Observatory's La Silla Paranal Observatory in Chile, in a picture released on Jan. 7. This image also shows three of the four movable units that feed light into the Very Large Telescope Interferometer, the world's most advanced optical instrument. Combining to form one larger telescope, they are greater than the sum of their parts: They reveal details that would otherwise be visible only through a telescope as large as the distance between them. (Y. Beletsky / ESO) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. A balloon's view

    Cameras captured the Grandville High School RoboDawgs' balloon floating through Earth's upper atmosphere during its ascent on Dec. 28, 2013. The Grandville RoboDawgs’ first winter balloon launch reached an estimated altitude of 130,000 feet, or about 25 miles, according to coaches Mike Evele and Doug Hepfer. It skyrocketed past the team’s previous 100,000-feet record set in June. The RoboDawgs started with just one robotics team in 1998, but they've grown to support more than 30 teams at public schools in Grandville, Mich. (Kyle Moroney / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Spacemen at work

    Russian cosmonauts Oleg Kotov, right, and Sergey Ryazanskiy perform maintenance on the International Space Station on Jan. 27. During the six-hour, eight-minute spacewalk, Kotov and Ryazanskiy completed the installation of a pair of high-fidelity cameras that experienced connectivity issues during a Dec. 27 spacewalk. The cosmonauts also retrieved scientific gear outside the station's Russian segment. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Special delivery

    The International Space Station's Canadian-built robotic arm moves toward Orbital Sciences Corp.'s Cygnus autonomous cargo craft as it approaches the station for a Jan. 12 delivery. The mountains below are the southwestern Alps. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Accidental art

    A piece of art? A time-lapse photo? A flickering light show? At first glance, this image looks nothing like the images we're used to seeing from the Hubble Space Telescope. But it's a genuine Hubble frame that was released on Jan. 27. Hubble's team suspects that the telescope's Fine Guidance System locked onto a bad guide star, potentially a double star or binary. This caused an error in the tracking system, resulting in a remarkable picture of brightly colored stellar streaks. The prominent red streaks are from stars in the globular cluster NGC 288. (NASA / ESA) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Supersonic test flight

    A camera looking back over Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo's fuselage shows the rocket burn with a Mojave Desert vista in the background during a test flight of the rocket plane on Jan. 10. Cameras were mounted on the exterior of SpaceShipTwo as well as its carrier airplane, WhiteKnightTwo, to monitor the rocket engine's performance. The test was aimed at setting the stage for honest-to-goodness flights into outer space later this year, and eventual commercial space tours.

    More about SpaceShipTwo on PhotoBlog (Virgin Galactic) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Red lagoon

    The VLT Survey Telescope at the European Southern Observatory's Paranal Observatory in Chile captured this richly detailed new image of the Lagoon Nebula, released on Jan. 22. This giant cloud of gas and dust is creating intensely bright young stars, and is home to young stellar clusters. This image is a tiny part of just one of 11 public surveys of the sky now in progress using ESO telescopes. (ESO/VPHAS team) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Fire on the mountain

    This image provided by NASA shows a satellite view of smoke from the Colby Fire, taken by the Multi-angle Imaging SpectroRadiometer aboard NASA's Terra spacecraft as it passed over Southern California on Jan. 16. The fire burned more than 1,863 acres and forced the evacuation of 3,700 people. (NASA via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Where stars are born

    An image captured by NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope shows the Orion Nebula, an immense stellar nursery some 1,500 light-years away. This false-color infrared view, released on Jan. 15, spans about 40 light-years across the region. The brightest portion of the nebula is centered on Orion's young, massive, hot stars, known as the Trapezium Cluster. But Spitzer also can detect stars still in the process of formation, seen here in red hues. (NASA / JPL-Caltech) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Cygnus takes flight

    Orbital Sciences Corp.'s Antares rocket rises from NASA's Wallops Flight Facility on Wallops Island, Va, on Jan. 9. The rocket sent Orbital's Cygnus cargo capsule on its first official resupply mission to the International Space Station. (Chris Perry / NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. A long, long time ago...

    This long-exposure picture from the Hubble Space Telescope, released Jan. 8, is the deepest image ever made of any cluster of galaxies. The cluster known as Abell 2744 appears in the foreground. It contains several hundred galaxies as they looked 3.5 billion years ago. Abell 2744 acts as a gravitational lens to warp space, brightening and magnifying images of nearly 3,000 distant background galaxies. The more distant galaxies appear as they did more than 12 billion years ago, not long after the Big Bang. (NASA / NASA via AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Frosty halo

    Sun dogs are bright spots that appear in the sky around the sun when light is refracted through ice crystals in the atmosphere. These sun dogs appeared on Jan. 5 amid brutally cold temperatures along Highway 83, north of Bismarck, N.D. The temperature was about 22 degrees below zero Fahrenheit, with a 50-below-zero wind chill.

    Slideshow: The Year in Space (Brian Peterson / The Bismarck Tribune via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
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