"Manufacturers get nervous when you point to this satellite and this event," Reeves said. "They're in competition and they have to be able to say their satellites are as good as, or better than the next guy's."
Manned spacecraft orbiting just a few hundred miles high are generally shielded by Earth's magnetic field. But their risks increase as their orbits approach the poles.
That's where the Earth's magnetic field funnels energized particles from the sun down to the upper atmosphere. The bombardment creates beautiful auroras, but human exposure can damage chromosomes and lead to cancer or death.
The international space station is being assembled in just such a northerly orbit. That makes it accessible to Russia's heavy-lift rockets, but its astronauts will face added risks.
Michael J. Golightly, chief of space science at NASA's Johnson Space Center, said that if the space station's radiation alarms are triggered, astronauts can retreat to several well-shielded modules.
But if body exposures approach dangerous levels, he said, "the decision has to be made: Is it worth the risk to keep them going longer, or do they need to be brought home?"
Expansion of the atmosphere due to heightened solar activity is expected to drag Russia's Mir space station to a fiery end this year. Other disturbances will disrupt shortwave radio signals and satellite navigation systems. Satellite phone systems, such as Iridium, may also be disrupted. "These guys are walking into a buzz saw," said Kappenman.
The electric power industry's increased reliance on long transmission lines and power transfers makes it more vulnerable, over wider regions, to the kind of geomagnetic storm that blacked out Quebec in 1989.
To defend itself, Hydro-Quebec spent $1.2 billion on protective hardware. Other utilities have made a less costly decision to develop improved solar forecasts.
NASA satellites now provide the Space Environment Center with at least a hour's warning of storms. The SEC then issues bulletins and alerts.
For solar and geomagnetic forecasts, see www.sec.noaa.gov or www.spaceweather.com.