Space weather: How solar eruptions could be bad news for gadgets

It's dawn on Friday 2 September 1859 and the sky above the Bahamas is pulsing with red and green light, bright enough to read a newspaper by.

Electricity surges through telegraph cables in Europe and the US, shocking operators who are sending messages and causing their equipment to burst into flames.

The cause of this mayhem just over 150 years ago? None other than the Sun, which hours earlier had belched out a plume of charged particles that streamed across space before smashing into the magnetic shield that surrounds Earth, generating a maelstrom of magnetic fields and electric currents.

The potential damage that a similar-sized event could cause to power stations and the hundreds of satellites in orbit has been estimated at a total of more than $100bn, notwithstanding the financial losses that worldwide economies would suffer as a result of power and communications blackouts.