Watch CBS News

NASA Monitoring Solar Flares; May Impact GPS & Satellite Communications

BALTIMORE (WJZ)-- A massive eruption on the sun is being closely monitored here on earth.

Alex DeMetrick reports, while it won't harm us physically, much of what modern life depends upon is vulnerable.

When the sun came up over the Chesapeake, it came packing a punch.

"Right now, we're experiencing the initial impact of the coronal mass ejection-- this huge blast of material that's left the sun," Dr. Alex Young of NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center said.

It starts with sun spots that generate energy. As it builds against the sun's gravity, that energy snaps and blasts outward.

It happened Sunday, and now the resulting storm of highly charged particles is hitting the earth's magnetic field, stretching it until it snaps back, triggering northern lights and sending that energy into the atmosphere.

"It's important to be able to know when it's going to happen, and also how strong it is going to be when it hits," Young said.

Because solar storms can impact satellite communications and GPS. If radiation levels get high enough, it could force astronauts aboard the space station to take shelter.

Down here on the ground, electric power grids are vulnerable.

"Long-term transmission lines will pick those currents up on the ground," Young said. "Those cause power fluctuations in the substations. If they don't know about it, if they weren't prepared, it could possibly knock out those power stations."

But a small armada of solar satellites provided early warning of the storm, giving time to prepare, minimizing damage. This time:

"We're roughly a year or so from reaching the peak, the solar maximum, when we'll see more of these storms, and possibly larger ones," Young said.

This is the largest solar storm in years, and those high-energy particles are hitting earth's magnetic field at 4 million miles per hour.

View CBS News In
CBS News App Open
Chrome Safari Continue
Be the first to know
Get browser notifications for breaking news, live events, and exclusive reporting.