Communications and global positioning satellites suddenly go silent. So do some forms of radio. Then computers and cell phones fail, followed by land-line phones. Finally, the lights go out -- leaving only the Sun to light the day, and the Moon and dazzling aurorae at night. This assault isn't the work of menacing aliens, though -- it's from the Sun.
Powerful magnetic storms on the Sun can produce outbursts of energy and charged particles. Earth's magnetic field protects us from most of these events. But a few have fried satellites, disrupted communications, and even knocked out power grids.
The most powerful outburst ever recorded took place 150 years ago this week. It overloaded telegraph lines and triggered intense displays of the northern and southern lights.
Last year, a NASA study found that a similar outburst today could be catastrophic. It could knock out most communications and destroy electric transformers and other equipment that could take months to replace. The economic damage could be in the trillions of dollars.
Fortunately, big solar outbursts usually happen only around the peak of the Sun's 11-year magnetic cycle. The next peak, which is due in a few years, is expected to be mild. And most outbursts are directed away from Earth.
Even so, the next superstorm on the Sun could cause super problems right here on Earth.
And you wouldn't need a superstorm to cause big problems in space. More about that tomorrow.
Script by Damond Benningfield, Copyright 2009
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