Astronomy: The Prodigal Sun

For several days in November 1960, the earth was under attack. Enormous sheets of red and green light nickered in the night sky. Magnetic storms blacked out long-distance radio communications. Compass needles danced crazily and Teletypes printed page after page of utter nonsense. These phenomena were not caused by an alien invader but by the familiar and normally benign sun. In an outburst equal to the energy of a billion hydrogen bombs, it was bombarding the earth with exceptionally intense electromagnetic radiation and a dense hail of high-velocity particles.

The barrage of rays and particles was largely deflected by the Van...

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