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Massive solar storm nears Earth

The skies over the UK and the US are likely to light up with colors this week as a wave of supercharged matter explodes from the sun and races towards Earth. But the light show won't be visible from India. Anika Gupta reports.What's up with the Sun?

delhi Updated: Aug 04, 2010 21:13 IST
Anika Gupta

The skies over the UK and the US are likely to light up with colors this week as a wave of supercharged matter explodes from the sun and races towards Earth. But the light show won't be visible from India.

"The supercharged particles cannot reach us in equatorial regions thanks to the Earth's magnetic field," said Ravi Manchanda, a senior professor in the department of astronomy and astrophysics at the Mumbai-based Tata Institute of Fundamental Research.

Scientists first warned that a solar storm was on the way on Sunday, when they spotted a wave of charged particles erupting from a sunspot on the Sun's surface. Sunspots are temporary cool spots that form on the solar surface due to magnetic activity.

Occasionally, the spots are accompanied by eruptions of charged particles from the sun's surface, called solar flares.

The flares hit the earth's protective magnetic field and scatter. At the poles, particles react with the earth's atmosphere to create the aurora borealis, or Northern Lights.

The current wave, headed for earth, is a massive solar flare. In the past, solar flares could fry satellite systems, but the invention of better telescopes and satellites now means that scientists can spot a flare and shut off sensitive equipment.

For researchers who specialize in the sun's mercurial behavior, the current flare might come as a relief. The sun's flares usually occur in 11-year-cycles, but for the past two years these flares have been inexplicably absent.

"The past two years have seen a peculiar extended solar minima," said Dipankar Banerjee, a reader at the Bangalore-based Indian Institute of Astrophysics.

"The scientific community was very worried that if the solar minima persists for a long period it might affect Earth."

In the 1600s, the sun went for 50 years without a single sunspot, said Banerjee.

The absence might have one of the reasons Europe went through a mini Ice Age at around the same time.