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A solar 'blob' is coming, but this show won't be scary

Chad Blakley / Lights Over Lapland

Auroral lights glow in the skies over Sweden's Abisko National Park on Jan. 13.



It might sound scary to hear that a giant blob of solar plasma is heading straight for us, but don't panic: Space weather forecasters say this solar outburst should deliver nothing more than a spectacular show up north.

"We're not going to be in for a big disturbance," said Norm Cohen, senior forecaster at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Space Weather Prediction Center in Colorado. "The northern tier of the United States might be able to see aurorae."

The outburst of electrically charged plasma — also known as a coronal mass ejection, or CME — blasted out from the sun on Jan. 13, sparking a radio blackout. It's taken several days for the blob itself to travel the 93 million miles between the sun and here, but forecasters now expect it to sweep over Earth's magnetic field early to midday Thursday.


When strong solar storms interact with the magnetosphere, they can spark satellite outages and disrupt electric power grids. Fortunately, this one shouldn't be that strong. (In geekspeak, let's just say that the maximum Kp is expected to reach no higher than 4. NOAA's space weather scale lays out the effects associated with higher Kp levels. Check out the prediction center's Facebook page for space weather updates.)

The most visible effect should be the northern lights generated by the interaction between the electrically charged solar particles and atoms in Earth's upper atmosphere, as explained on the "Causes of Color" website. This week's geomagnetic flare-up should add to what's already been a great week for auroral displays in northern latitudes.

Chad Blakley, a photographer at Sweden's Abisko National Park, sent in the beauty you see above. "It looks like there may be more powerful auroras in the days ahead," Blakley said in an email. "It is a very good time to be an aurora photographer!"

For more of Blakley's beauties, check out the Lights Over Lapland website or the LOL Facebook page.

Glowing reports are coming in from space as well. Here's a picture captured by the Department of Defense's DMSP F-18 OLS low-light imager on Jan. 13. The green outlines show Ireland and Britain down south, and Iceland and Scandinavia up north. The ghostly wisps crossing the frame are the northern lights. It's conceivable that the bright streaks you see in this satellite picture are the same ones visible in Blakley's pictures.

DOD via Mark Conner / SpaceWeather.com

The northern lights show up as ghostly streaks of white in a satellite picture captured on Jan. 13 by a low-light imager on the Defense Department's DMSP F-18 meteorological satellite.

Aurora photographer Chad Blakley (www.lightsoverlapland.com) shot this time lapse of an aurora shimmering through the clouds over Abisko National Park in Sweden on the night of Jan. 13. The video was assembled from nearly 3,000 still images.

Are there more solar blasts heading our way? SpaceWeather.com notes that a complex sunspot region known as AR1654 is pointing in our direction and has the potential to send more big blobs of plasma our way. But Cohen said the worries about that particular sunspot have been receding.

"It's been fairly quiet in terms of flare production," he said. "If anything, it's beginning to show signs of decay."

In fact, there's been increasing talk that this year's expected peak of the sun's 11-year activity cycle could be relatively wimpy. Cohen said he didn't want to make that sweeping of a prediction — but he did admit that there hasn't been as much disruption as some people might have feared.

"The activity hasn't been all that impressive yet," he said.

More auroral glories:


Alan Boyle is NBCNews.com's science editor. Connect with the Cosmic Log community by "liking" the log's Facebook page, following @b0yle on Twitter and adding the Cosmic Log page to your Google+ presence. To keep up with Cosmic Log as well as NBCNews.com's other stories about science and space, sign up for the Tech & Science newsletter, delivered to your email in-box every weekday. You can also check out "The Case for Pluto," my book about the controversial dwarf planet and the search for new worlds.