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Huge solar eruption could make for dazzling northern lights (+video)

A giant solar eruption may bring an exceptional weekend northern lights display for those as far south as California and Alabama, a NASA scientist says.

By Mike WallSpace.com / July 13, 2012

An X1.4 class flare erupted from the center of the sun, peaking on July 12, 2012 at 12:52 PM EDT. It erupted from Active Region 1520 which rotated into view on July 6.

NASA/SDO/AIA

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A massive solar eruption may trigger an exceptional weekend northern lights display, perhaps bringing the phenomenon into view as far south as California and Alabama, a NASA scientist says.

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The sun's surface erupted into an angry solar flare on July 12, 2012 at 12:52 p.m. EDT.

The X1.4-class flare unleashed about 1 billion hydrogen bombs' worth of energy into space. Right behind it is a slower-moving coronal mass ejection, or CME, which is a belch of solar particles.

When strong CME's reach Earth, they can peel back Earth's magnetic layers, cause dazzling auroras, affect satellites in space and even fluctuate power grids.

The sun unleashed an X-class solar flare — the most powerful type — at 12:52 p.m. EDT (1652 GMT) on Thursday (July 12). The storm also triggered a huge eruption of solar plasma known as a coronal mass ejection, or CME, which is now streaking directly toward Earth at roughly 3 million mph (5 million kph).

The CME is expected to hit our planet at 6:20 a.m. EDT (1020 GMT) Saturday (July 14), plus or minus seven hours, according to researchers with the Space Weather Lab at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md.

Thursday's solar outburst officially rated as an X1.4-class flare, making it the strongest sun storm of the summer so far. The flare and CME erupted from a massive sunspot known as AR1520, which scientists say may be up to 186,000 miles (300,000 kilometers) long. [Photos: Solar Flares From Giant Sunspot AR1520]

The CME's arrival at Earth will likely spawn moderate to severe geomagnetic storms, which may cause temporary disruptions to GPS signals, radio communications and power grids, scientists said.

Geomagnetic storms often generate dramatic aurora displays, which are also known as the northern and southern lights. So skywatchers around the world are likely in for a treat this weekend.

The CME "could produce aurora as far south as northern California and Alabama," C. Alex Young, a solar astrophysicist at NASA Goddard, told SPACE.com in an email update. "This would be into central UK and Europe or southern New Zealand."

"It could promise to be a great show of aurora," Young added. "I am hoping for some in Maryland."

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