Stormy Weather

Raining particles and radiation on an increasingly tech-dependent Earth, the sun's upcoming max may zap everything from cell phones to power grids

A million miles from the earth, NASA's Advanced Composition Explorer (ACE) spacecraft suddenly found itself under assault. Late in January, the tiny, instrument-packed spacecraft was buffeted by an exceptionally powerful burst of particles spewed out by the sun. In the space-environment control room at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) headquarters in Boulder, Colo., alarms sounded. "All of a sudden, a blast wave of solar wind showed up at the ACE spacecraft," says NOAA's Joe Hirman, "as dense as any we've seen, and, bam, 30 minutes later the earth's magnetic field got hit hard."

A few days earlier, the Solar...

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