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Powerful Solar Storm Rips into Earth's Magnetic Field

The most powerful solar storm of the current solar cycle is currently reverberating around the globe.

The most powerful solar storm of the current solar cycle is currently reverberating around the globe.

Initially triggered by the impact of a coronal mass ejection (CME) hitting our planet's magnetosphere, a relatively mild geomagnetic storm erupted at around 04:30 UT (12:30 a.m. EDT), but it has since ramped-up to an impressive G4-class geomagnetic storm, priming high latitudes for some bright auroral displays.

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When strong auroral activity started brightening the skies early this morning over Alaska, speaking with Spaceweather.com photographer Marketa Murray said: "The auroras were insane. I have never seen anything like this."

Launched from the sun on Sunday, a large Earth-directed CME has reached Earth faster than expected. We've seen an uptick in solar activity in recent days, culminating in the first X-class flare of 2015 last week. But the impact of this CME has taken space weather scientists by surprise, an indication that the CME was "geoeffective."

Wrapped in a powerful magnetic field, CMEs consist of huge bubbles of energized gas from the sun's superheated corona (the solar atmosphere). The speed at which the CME travels into interplanetary space and the alighnment of its magnetic field can severely influence that CME's impact on Earth's magnetic field.

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Our planet has a global magnetic field called the magnetosphere, so should a CME hit the magnetosphere at just the right alignment, the CME's magnetic field can reconnect, causing intense magnetic disruption, injecting the magnetosphere with huge quantities of plasma from the sun. In this situation, the CME is said to be "geoeffective" and the resulting geomagnetic storm can be extreme.

Today's storm is so intense that it far overshadows anything that has come before it in our sun's current solar cycle. Approximately every 11 years, the sun waxes and wanes in magnetic activity, culminating in solar maximum, when the solar magnetic field is so stressed that flares and CMEs are commonplace. Although the sun is currently declining in activity from maximum that was predicted to have peaked in 2013, it goes to show that Solar Cycle 24 hasn't finished with us quite yet.

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The storm is still ongoing and space weather experts will be closely watching developments. Storms such as these can have global impacts - from overloading powergrids and causing communication outages to satellite damage. One thing is for certain, however, if you're fortunate to live in high latitudes, be sure to check out tonight's auroras, they will be impressive.

For more information about today's geomagnetic storm, follow updates on Spaceweather.com.

The current auroral oval (at 1:30 p.m. EDT, Tuesday) over the North Americas -- the most intense auroral activity is shown in red.

In recent weeks, the crew on board the International Space Station have been treated to some awesome views of space weather in action. The sun, which has been spluttering out some small to mid-sized flares and coronal mass ejections recently, frequently injects charged particles into our planet's magnetosphere. After being channeled toward high latitudes by Earth's magnetic field, this solar plasma impacts our atmosphere, erupting into a stunning auroral display.

What is the Aurora Borealis?

This view from the space station was captured by one of the crew and shows the multicolored streamers of an aurora over the Southern Hemisphere -- known as the Aurora Australis. The different colors correspond to different gases in the atmosphere becoming energized by the solar plasma impacting the atmosphere at high altitudes.

Russian cosmonaut Oleg Artemyev

captured this eerie photo

of a diffuse aurora over Earth out of one of the space station's windows. The orbiting outpost's solar panels can be seen to the left.

With the space station's robotic Canadarm 2 folded outside the space station, NASA astronaut Reid Wiseman

posted this photograph of an aurora to Twitter on Aug. 29

.

A bright green aurora snakes over the atmosphere below the space station. Green aurorae are caused by lower altitude oxygen atoms in our atmosphere being energized by solar wind electrons.

A burst of beautiful green and red aurorae were spotted on Aug. 19 and NASA astronaut Reid Wiseman

tweeted this photo with the message

: "Never in my wildest dreams did I imagine this."

The nighttime hemisphere of the Earth is almost dark apart from the ghostly glow of a green aurora.

Often resembling a curtain swaying in the wind, aurorae are strikingly dynamic. They morph into a variety of shapes depending on the quantity of solar plasma hitting the atmosphere and the orientation of the magnetic field.

Photographed here by ESA astronaut Alexander Gerst

on Aug. 27, a stunning, curved aurora cuts across the limb of the Earth.

Looking down at Earth during a solar storm, ESA astronaut Alexander Gerst

tweeted this photo on Sept. 2 with the message

, "This is what we see looking down while being inside an aurora."

The moon sets into an "glowing ocean of green",

as described by ESA astronaut Alexander Gerst in a tweet on Sept. 3

. Two Soyuz spacecraft can be seen in the foreground docked to the space station.