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Solar blast heading our way

Watch video clips of today's solar flare, as seen by NASA spacecraft.

The sun has unleashed a blast in Earth's direction, and that should cause brighter-than-normal auroral displays this weekend. Skywatchers won't be the only ones monitoring the storm: The folks in charge of power grids and orbiting satellites will also be on guard to make sure the disturbance in the (geomagnetic) force won't be disruptive.

Word of today's blast, technically known as a coronal mass ejection or CME, comes via SpaceWeather.com's Tony Phillips. NASA says the outburst sparked an M3.2-class solar flare, as well as a stream of electrically charged particles that is due to interact with Earth's magnetic field on Saturday. "Viewers can be on the lookout for increased aurora," NASA says.

M-class flares are capable of causing brief radio blackouts near the poles as well as minor radiation storms, but it's unlikely that this one will disrupt communication or power transmission networks. The forecast would be different if it were an X-class storm heading our way. As the sun approaches the peak of its 11-year activity cycle in 2013 or so, we can expect to see more powerful solar outbursts. 

To keep tabs on the prospects for northern (or southern) lights, check SpaceWeather.com as well as the University of Alaska's Aurora Forecast website. The higher your latitude, the better your chances of seeing the lights. If you miss them, never fear: SpaceWeather.com will surely update its January aurora gallery over the weekend. And if you snag a great picture that you'd like to share, pass it along via the Cosmic Log Facebook page or msnbc.com's FirstPerson in-box.

Don't miss the Jan. 22 update on this solar storm. Click here!  ;-)

More great auroral views:

Alan Boyle is msnbc.com's science editor. Connect with the Cosmic Log community by "liking" the log's Facebook page, following @b0yle on Twitter or adding Cosmic Log's Google+ page to your circle. You can also check out "The Case for Pluto," my book about the controversial dwarf planet and the search for other worlds.