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When the Sun Burps

Something mysterious happened in early January of 1997: rather abruptly, a multi-million dollar communications satellite that had been in perfect working order suddenly shut down, never to work again.

Millions of folks found their television sets gone blank. It was as if one of the highlights of 20th century technology, the communications link between broadcast tower, satellite and receiver, had simply been snuffed out. Was this an attack from outer space?

One likely candidate for an explanation does, in fact, come from outer space, though it isn't anything as exotic as an alien invasion. Just at the time of the satellite's failure, the earth was hit by a blast fired out of the sun.

This blast of energy was made up of electrically-charged particles that were moving at about a million miles an hour; the whole cloud was about thirty million miles wide. Even at its colossal rate of speed, the cloud was so big that it took an entire day to pass by any given point in its path. Scientists think it may have overloaded the satellite the way a sudden burst of electricity, say, from a bolt of lightning, can blow the fuses in a house.

As dramatic as this seems, though, the event itself is actually rather commonplace. The earth is knocked by high-energy bursts from the sun all the time! When the sun is especially active, we can be hit as frequently as once a day, for the most part without noticeable effects.

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