Violent solar storms are created much closer to the Earth than previously thought - as close as GPS and weather satellites, according to a new NASA study.
Researchers at the University of California, Los Angeles used NASA data to show that storms form when solar winds interact with the Earth's magnetic field.
It is very difficult to detect these high intensity bursts of magnetic energy due to the fact intense storms are 'very rare', according to lead author Vassilis Angelopoulos.
Understanding exactly how and where these storms form could give us 'critical minutes and hours' to protect electricity grids from their impact, he said.
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An illustration shows the Earth's magnetosphere during a magnetic storm including satellites on the right of the picture in geosynchronous orbit
The strength of a solar storm can vary dramatically from small ones with minimal impact to 'the big one' that could knock out the electricity grid.
They work in a similar way to winds and storms on Earth - solar wind arrives from the Sun, interacts with the magnetosphere surrounding the planet and generates magnetic storms with powerful electric currents.
A new study by the NASA THEMIS mission team is the first to show that such storms can originate much closer to Earth than previously thought.
The satellites observed the origins of the storms about three to four Earth diameters away - that is about 23,752 miles or a tenth of the distance to the Moon.
So close in fact that they overlap with the orbits of critical weather, communications and GPS satellites, says Professor Angelopoulos from UCLA.
A magnetic storm can be beautiful - it can produce the dazzling northern lights shown as colourful swirling effects in the atmosphere, normally nearer the poles.
They can also generate hazardous particles careening toward spacecraft and astronauts, zapping them out of commission, said Angelopoulos.
Under certain conditions, magnetic storms can disable the electrical grid, disrupt radio communications and corrode pipelines.
A particularly strong one could create extreme aurora visible close to the equator.
There was a particularly dramatic illustration of the power of a magnetic storm in 1921 when it disrupted the telegraph communication network.
It also caused power outages that resulted in a New York City train station burning to the ground.
Another storm in 1972 was narrowly missed by Apollo 16 and 17 astronauts. Had it hit them it would have been fatal.
'These incidents underscore the potential dangers that should be assessed as more humans venture into orbit', UCLA said in a statement.
If a similar storm occurred today, a separate study estimated, economic losses in the US due to electrical blackouts alone could surpass £30billion ($40billion) a day.
Brilliant aurora borealis is captured over Yukon, Canada, during a geomagnetic storm. They are created when solar wind interacts with the atmosphere on Earth
The impact of a big storm in 1921 is why researchers are keen to understand as much about the Sun and solar storms as possible.