|The Sun on January 21, 2012|
Sunspot 1401 erupted on January 19
Here is a neat animation of the forecast, showing not only the Earth, but Mars, Mercury and Venus as well as a few spacecraft in orbit. The cloud is expected to hit here on Saturday, around 22:30 UT (plus or minus 7 hours). (The Space Weather Prediction Center has forecast that it will hit at high northern latitudes around 1:00 p.m. EST on Sunday, with the bulk of the disturbance on Monday.) Initially there were apparently fears that this would be a direct blast that could seriously threaten communications and satellites, but the Post reports that it is more likely going to be a glancing blow affecting high latitudes. It will reach Mars on January 24th.
We are heading toward a sunspot maximum in 2013, and sunspot activity and flares like this may increase. Another consequence of increasing sunspot activity is that the UV radiation levels increase from the sunspots. This activity "puffs up" the earth's atmosphere which puts drag on low-altitude space debris, causing it to slow down and eventually fall out of orbit. Space debris has become a major concern for safety of the astronauts in orbit, and getting rid of some of it in this way is a good thing. I hadn't been aware, but in 2007 the Chinese "killed" one of their weather satellites in a test, creating over 3,000 pieces of debris bigger than golf-ball size. Only 6% of this debris has re-entered the earth's atmosphere. There was also a collision of Cosmos 2251 and Iridium 33 satellites that created debris.
Could be some good aurora somewhere!
Here's more on CME's and sunspots from earlier posts: (1) The 1859 Solar Superstorm; (2) Solar Activity (and Newt Gingrich)--well, that's relevant today since it's the South Carolina Republican primary vote!!)