Yes, a large glob of plasma and magnetic fields from the sun did just miss us two years ago, as news organizations have feverishly reported over the past few days, following a NASA press release. At the time, scientists were hugely relieved it flew by Earth and missed us entirely. If it had hit, the coronal mass ejection (CME) could have decimated power grids on the ground and sizzled satellite electronics in space, causing widespread communications and electricity blackouts. It would not, however, have destroyed the entire planet (unless you equate the loss of the internet with the end of existence).
Solar storms are a real threat, however, and we might not be lucky enough to dodge the next one. Our sun is currently in the middle of its “solar maximum,” a period of especially high magnetic activity—the root cause of solar storms and CMEs. So far, we’ve avoided major trouble from our nearest star this year, and physicists are even pondering why this cycle appears to be unusually quiescent. But solar activity is hard to predict, and no one knows when the next tempest might erupt.
In the August 2008 issue of Scientific American, astrophysicists Sten F. Odenwald and James L. Green argued that better solar forecasting is a must. If another major CME hits Earth, similar in scale to the superstorm of 1859, the infrastructure damage could be catastrophic, they write, but an early warning would help mitigate damage. The authors lay out a plan for steeling Earth against future solar attacks by reinforcing power grids and shielding satellites, and by improving our ability to predict solar storms through improved sun monitoring. For more on what we should be doing to protect ourselves, check out the article (subscription required) here: