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Sun belches humongous plume of radioactive plasma: What you need to know

On August 20 and again on August 21, the sun released coronal mass ejections (CMEs), giant plumes of plasma that are heading towards Earth. 

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He continues, "Take a soap bubble. You keep putting more and more air into that soap bubble. You put too much air in, and the soap bubble goes BANG! The same thing happens with a balloon. The pieces of the balloon or the soap bubble go flying out into space. Although in this case, actually, the whole structure goes flying out into space, not just pieces of it."

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A better visual, he says, though one that's less scientifically accurate, is this: "If you take a balloon and blow it up, and blow it up, and blow it up, and then you let it go at the bottom, it goes flying out. That, in a way, is what's happening – not physically, but visually – this balloon or bubble is flying out into space.... And then the balloon, all still expanded, crashes into Earth's magnetic field." 

And that's when things really get interesting.

Earth's magnetic field usually protects the planet like an invisible cocoon, shielding the surface and near-Earth satellites from solar radiation, but the energy slamming in from a CME can shove the magnetic field out of its usual configuration, explains Loraine Lundquist, a physics professor at Cal State Northridge. On the side far from the sun, the magnetic field is pulled out farther than usual, while the side facing the sun is flattened down toward Earth's surface. If the magnetic field is pushed far enough, communications satellites can find themselves outside of its protective envelope, vulnerable to the incoming solar storm.

"The magnetosphere can go inside geosynchronous orbit distance, for example, leaving those satellites out – basically unprotected – outside the magnetosphere," says Dr. Lundquist. Like Iron Man without his suit, these satellites are then suddenly acutely vulnerable to the solar storm. The charged particles can't physically move the satellites, but they can "wreak havoc with the electronics," she says.

Solar storms can also affect the power grid, resulting in surges, shorts, and even power outages. CMEs also disrupt the ionosphere, notes Poland, which can affect shortwave radio, AM radio, and GPS signals. The GPS in your car or on your phone can usually pinpoint your location to within a few feet, but during a solar storm, it can be off by a few dozen feet or more.

But "the most obvious" effect of solar storm activity is visual, says Poland: the Northern Lights. When those billions of charged particles hit Earth's atmosphere, the collisions glow in countless beautiful ways. Earth's magnetic poles channel the collisions toward the poles, causing the Northern and Southern Lights, also called the aurora borealis and aurora australis. "The next night or two will be a good time to look for Northern Lights," says Poland. 

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