October 24, 2003 10:26 AM PDT

Solar flare may zing satellites, wireless networks

Experts are warning that a geomagnetic storm generated by eruptions on the sun could reach Earth on Friday and potentially interfere with a number of technologies, including satellites and wireless communications networks.

A report issued by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), a unit of the U.S. Department of Commerce, said that researchers at its Space Environment Center in Boulder, Colo., observed increased activity in two areas of the sun Wednesday morning.

One of the events produced a solar flare, technically known as a coronal mass ejection, which appeared to be headed in the direction of Earth. The solar flare in turn created a geomagnetic storm that NOAA is forecasting as G3, or "strong," on its five-level rating system.

NOAA warned that a storm of this magnitude could disrupt satellite and other spacecraft operations, as well as power systems, high-frequency communications systems and navigation systems. Among the potential effects could be intermittent performance of high-frequency radios, which could interfere with some of the world's wireless communications networks.

The storm could also compromise satellite and low-frequency radio navigation systems and cause surface changes on satellite components that could increase drag on low-Earth-orbit spacecrafts. Some satellites may also experience orientation problems, and false alarms could be triggered in protection devices built into some of Earth's power systems.

A NOAA researcher said the volatile area of the sun has developed rapidly over the last three or four days. Typically, solar activity cycles of varying size occur about every eleven years, said Larry Combs, a forecaster with the NOAA Space Environment Center?s Space Weather Operations. Combs said another, similar area of activity could be increasing in size on the other side of the sun.

According to NOAA, similar eruptions could occur in the nearby regions of the sun over the next two weeks. The so-called sunspot cluster is roughly 10 times larger than Earth. The same area, located near the center of the sun, produced a major flare in October that caused a radio blackout on Earth. NOAA said the region continues to grow, and it reported that additional flare activity is likely.

 

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