One of the strongest solar storms in recent history began buffeting the earth on Thursday, raising the possibility of global disruptions to satellite and electronics systems.

Effects — including bright Northern Lights in the northern hemisphere — might be noticed for several days.

“We now have warnings of a storm that is supposed to come this evening,” Paolo Ferri, of the European Space Operations Centre of the European Space Agency (ESA), told DPA.

Thursday’s storm comes after a minor storm hit earth on Wednesday night and after a larger storm in January passed to the earth’s right.

Not only was Thursday’s storm likely to hit the earth full on, but it was also supposed to be one of the most powerful felt in recent years and five times stronger than the one registered on Wednesday night.

So far, no disruptions have been noticed in satellite functions around the world, since many sensitive devices had been powered down on Wednesday in anticipation of the storm. There were reports that it had become difficult to control the Venus Express, an ESA Venus probe.

Possible disruptions could include problems with flights, electricity networks and earth-orbiting satellites.

“There are two problems with satellites,” says Ferri. Some, like the space telescope Integral, have sensitive instruments on board that work with high voltage. “Those react immediately and dramatically,” which is why they are turned off before the storm.

He said it helps that forecasts of solar storms have improved; giving scientists more time to prepare themselves and their equipment.

But there’s another key problem, said Ferri. Some satellites are guided by special star sensors.

“Those sensors are practically blinded when these storm-loaded particles come. That’s what’s happening with Venus Express,” he said.

He noted that, because the Express is nearing Venus, it’s even closer to the sun and experiencing even more intensity. To compensate, radio signals could be used to steer the satellite, but that is a less precise and labour-intensive alternative.

The sun is in the middle of an 11-year waxing and waning cycle. Scientists expect this one to peak in mid-2013. The current storm is expected to be the second-strongest of the current cycle so far.

Keywords: Solar storm

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