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Solar storm disrupts spacecraft, signals

An „energetic” storm on the sun disrupted signals in space and forced mission controllers to shut systems down to avoid damage to spacecraft orbiting Earth, the European Space Agency said.

The sun on December 13 expelled a solar flare after a buildup of magnetic energy near its surface triggered an explosion, the agency said today in an e-mailed statement. The flare caused a so-called coronal mass ejection, which sent a stream of fast-moving atomic particles toward Earth, the agency said. „When you have a burst, the flux of very fast charged particles increases dramatically,” Juergen Volpp, who manages operations of the European Space Agency's four Cluster spacecraft, said in the statement. „This can cause discharges in electronic components, the so-called single-event upsets, on the spacecraft, as well as damage or loss of data.”

The flare was the strongest of five categories for such ejections and was one of a series of eruptions this week that emanated from a region of active sunspots, the agency said. Parts of one of the craft lost power, and an instrument on another shut itself down after the burst of solar energy, the agency said. Ten astronauts aboard the Shuttle Discovery and the International Space Station, including the European Space Agency's Thomas Reiter, a German, and Christer Fuglesang of Sweden, slept in a protected area as a precaution, the statement said.

Particles discharged by solar storms can disrupt telephone systems, broadcast signals, and navigation networks. On December 14, shortwave radio communications were disrupted in China, the statement said. The flare also affected other craft between the Sun and the earth, the agency said. Instruments on Envisat, a satellite that monitors the Earth's land, atmosphere, oceans and ice caps, shut down, and mission managers for another craft had to protect its instruments, the agency said. Signals sent by the European Space Agency's three craft that are deeper in space, including missions to Venus, Mars and a comet, experienced higher-than-normal interference, it said. (Bloomberg)