Massive solar storm bombards Earth tonight

Canada and parts of the northern United States may be in for a spectacular light show overnight, courtesy of the the sun's bombardment of Earth with radiation from the biggest solar storm in more than eight years.

Canada, northern U.S. may get 'amazing' aurora borealis

A solar flare is seen erupting on the Sun's northeastern hemisphere on Sunday night. Physicist Doug Biesecker said the biggest concern from the speedy eruption is the radiation, which arrived on Earth an hour later. It will likely continue through Wednesday. (NASA/Associated Press)

Canada and parts of the northern United States may be in for a spectacular light show courtesy of the the sun's bombardment of Earth with radiation from the biggest solar storm in more than eight years.

The radiation from the fast-moving eruption will likely continue through Wednesday.

"The aurora borealis will be "a pretty amazing sight" Tuesday night, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration research scientist Juan Rodriguez told the Los Angeles Times. 

This is now the largest solar radiation storm since October 2003 (The Halloween Storms).

Earlier, scientists stated it was the largest since May 2005 but that changed after further measurements, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Space Weather Prediction Centre in Colorado said.

The solar flare occurred at about 11 p.m. ET Sunday and will hit Earth with three different effects at three different times. The biggest issue is radiation, according to the NOAA.

The radiation is mostly a concern for satellite disruptions and astronauts in space. It can cause communication problems for polar-travelling airplanes, said space weather centre physicist Doug Biesecker.

Radiation from Sunday's flare arrived at Earth an hour later. Levels are considered strong but other storms have been more severe. There are two higher levels of radiation on NOAA's storm scale — severe and extreme — Biesecker said. Still, this storm is the strongest for radiation since May 2005.

The radiation in the form of protons — came flying out of the sun at 150 million km/h.

"The whole volume of space between here and Jupiter is just filled with protons and you just don't get rid of them like that," Biesecker said. That's why the effects will stick around for a couple days.

NASA's flight surgeons and solar experts examined the solar flare's expected effects and decided that the six astronauts on the International Space Station do not have to do anything to protect themselves from the radiation, spokesman Rob Navias said.

A solar eruption is followed by a one-two-three punch, said Antti Pulkkinen, a physicist at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland and Catholic University.

First comes electromagnetic radiation, followed by radiation in the form of protons.

Then, finally the coronal mass ejection — that's the plasma from the sun itself — hits. Usually that travels at about 1.6 or 3.2 million km/h but this storm is particularly speedy and is shooting out at 6.4 million km/h, Biesecker said.

It's the plasma that causes much of the noticeable problems on Earth, such as electrical grid outages. In 1989, a solar storm caused a massive blackout in Quebec. It can also pull the northern lights farther south.

But this coronal mass ejection seems likely to be only moderate, with a chance for becoming strong, Biesecker said. The worst of the storm is likely to go north of Earth.

For the past several years the sun had been quiet, almost too quiet. Part of that was the normal calm part of the sun's 11-year cycle of activity. Last year, scientists started to speculate that the sun was going into an unusually quiet cycle that seems to happen maybe once a century or so.

Now that super-quiet cycle does not seem as likely, Biesecker said.

Scientists watching the sun with a new NASA satellite launched in 2010 — during the sun's quiet period — are excited.

"We haven't had anything like this for a number of years," Pulkkinen said. "It's kind of special."