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Real threats from outer space (photos)

The more you study solar flares and asteroids, the more you want to run for cover. But the real threat isn't to human life, it's to our energy infrastucture and communications.
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1 of 16 Andy Smith/ZDNet

The more you study solar flares and asteroids, the more you want to run for cover. But the real threat isn't to human life, it's to our energy infrastucture and communications.

NASA scientists are predicting a below average solar cycle beginning in 2011, similiar to the one that existed in 1859 when massive solar storms sent a flare that lit up the skies and set fire to some telegraph offices - the communications system at the time. Imagine the problems if that happened now. Plus, an asteroid passed within 7,500 miles of the Earth - today.

Officials met last week at the Space Weather Enterprise Forum to keep the world aware and begin to prepare for similar storms and flares that would have a major impact on the Earth's technology - GPS, satellites, power grids - and even your cell phone. There's a much bigger threat to our technology than to you.

Right now, we're virtually defenseless to a solar flare but NASA scientists are proposing a string of satellites around the sun that could see a major eruption and predict its path. Also under consideration are plans to shut down electrical grids if a potential threat occurs.

In this gallery we'll look at some real very recent solar flares and daily space weather tracking - including today's close encounter with an asteroid.

Credit: NASA/Martin Stojanovski

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com
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2 of 16 Andy Smith/ZDNet

Here's the size of the Earth compared to a normal solar flare that occured in March 2010. Fortunately, we're 93 million miles away from the sun so the odds are very much in our favor.

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com
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3 of 16 Andy Smith/ZDNet

The 1859 super flare is called the "Carrington event" after English astronomer Richard Carrington who was studying sunspots when "blinding white light" suddenly appeared over them in a kidney shape. See his diagram above. 

The next day, telegraph offices reported sparks flying that caused some fires, and in some places electrical currents kept the equipment operating even after the batteries were disconnected. Auroras could be seen all over the planet, even in tropical latitudes such as Hawaii. Some were so bright that newspapers could be read at night.

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com
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4 of 16 Andy Smith/ZDNet

Solar flares are a very common occurance. This one in 2006 damaged the X-ray Imager, which took this image onboard NOAA's GOES-13 satellite. The Carrington event was most likely much brighter.

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com
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5 of 16 Andy Smith/ZDNet

In 1989 a solar flare caused geomagnetic storms that shut down the power system in Quebec for 9 hours.

It doesn't sound that significant but many more massive flares have been observed.

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com
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6 of 16 Andy Smith/ZDNet

Here is a solar flare that occured on June 7, 2011.

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com
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7 of 16 Andy Smith/ZDNet

This amazing aurora in early June was a byproduct of the solar flare seen in the previous image.

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com
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8 of 16 Andy Smith/ZDNet

This solar flare is from December 2010.

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com
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9 of 16 Andy Smith/ZDNet

Here's a solar flare from February 2011.

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com
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10 of 16 Andy Smith/ZDNet

Should a major solar flare target Earth, astronauts and satellites are almost completely exposed. Their only chance is to be on the other side of the planet when it strikes.

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com
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11 of 16 Andy Smith/ZDNet

Both NASA and the National Oceanic and Atomspheric Administration (NOAA) operate sites that track space weather. Here is an image of the sun on June 27 that shows a "coronal hole" (upper left). A solar wind from this hole should reach Earth on July 1 or July 2.

There is only one sunspot right now with no threat of a solar flare according to NASA.

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com
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12 of 16 Andy Smith/ZDNet

Imagine my surprise upon visiting NASA's spaceweather .com, when I read that asteroid 2011MD was going to fly by the Earth within an hour. Upon further review, it is only about 10 meters wide and should pass about 7,500 miles away - actually not that far. If you're reading this, we must be OK.

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com
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13 of 16 Andy Smith/ZDNet

This asteroid is just one of 1,237 potentially hazardous space rocks being tracked. The miss distance is tracked by LD which is the distance from the Earth to the moon. 2011 MD came within 0.05 LDs of the Earth. From that perspective, wow.

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com
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14 of 16 Andy Smith/ZDNet

"...a chance of a C class flare" says the June 27 from the NOAA Space Weather Prediction Center.

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com
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15 of 16 Andy Smith/ZDNet

Here's a chart of sunspots over the past few years. There actually have been many less than usual.

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com
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16 of 16 Andy Smith/ZDNet

Xrays from space are tracked on a continual basis.

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

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