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Massive solar storm headed toward Earth

Biggest eruption in five years threatens to cause disruptions to communications and power grids, as well as creating auroras.

NASA captured this image of a massive solar flare erupting Tuesday.

A massive solar storm is hurtling toward Earth, threatening to disrupt communications, GPS, power grids, and airline flights.

A solar flare last night (see video below) created a coronal mass ejection, or the release of a burst of charged particles, from the sun's atmosphere. The storm--the largest in five years--is expected to rain a torrent of charged particles on the Earth early tomorrow morning, mostly in northern areas, according to forecasters at the federal government's Space Weather Prediction Center.

The storm, which has produced a radiation event that rated an S3, or strong, designation on the NOAA's five-level space weather scales, is growing as it moves away from the sun. When it strikes the Earth, the particles are expected to be moving at 4 million mph.

"It's hitting us right in the nose," Joe Kunches, a scientist for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, told the BBC. "Space weather has gotten very interesting over the past 24 hours."

Solar flares often create radio emissions at decimetric wavelengths that interfere with devices operating at those frequencies. This solar storm's magnetic, radio, and radiation emissions are the strongest since 2006, Kunches said.

NASA's models predict that the CMEs will pass by several of the agency's spacecraft, including Messenger, Spitzer, and STEREO-B. However, it appears that astronauts aboard the International Space Station will not be affected, a NASA spokesman told the AFP news agency.

Tuesday's flare was the second largest since the sun segued in 2007 into a period of relatively low activity called a solar minimum.

"The current increase in the number of X-class flares is part of the sun's normal 11-year solar cycle, during which activity on the sun ramps up to solar maximum, which is expected to peak in late 2013," the space agency said in a statement.

In addition to possible communications and power disruptions, NASA said one very visible impact from plasma ejected during the geomagnetic storm is the occurrence of aurora at low latitudes.