WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. - Orbital decay and 2,000 satellites dropping out of the sky. Shorted-out power grids and multi-state blackouts. Limited or no cell phone availability. Grounded polar flights. Potential economic devastation.

Hard sci-fi doomsday fodder? Unfortunately not, according to solar physics experts at Purdue University and the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

While typically taken for granted with its benevolent warming of the planet, the sun actually possesses extremely destructive capacity for a technology-dependent Earth, Purdue physicist Matthew Lister told MidwestBusiness.com.

As global dependency on technology has grown, so has the need for commercial operations to monitor and predict space weather, according to Doug Biesecker. Biesecker is a physicist in the NOAA's Space Environment Center (SEC).

Technology designers and manufacturers who ignore the destructive potential of solar-influenced space weather do so at the peril of sustained profitability and even corporate existence, according to Lister.

Magnetic storms and radiation from solar flares and high-speed wind streams regularly hit the Earth within minutes of being erupted from the sun. This disrupts radio transmissions, eradiates aircraft passengers on polar flights and sends surges through power grids, Biesecker told MidwestBusiness.com.

About $2 billion in damage to existing satellites occurred during the sunspot cycle from 1996 to 2005.

The solar activity "we're really worried about," according to Lister, is a massive coronal ejection event. It's a literal once-in-a-century solar super storm. In a coronal ejection event, the sun erupts massive qualities of super-heated plasma and material from its surface at speeds approaching 100 million kilometers per hour.

The benchmark solar super storm took place in 1859 where in some cases telegraph wires exploded off poles or caught fire. The aurora borealis was seen regularly as far south as Rome along with Florida and Texas in the U.S. Lister added: "Today's commercial environment is much more vulnerable to a storm of this magnitude."

According to ice-core analysis from Antarctica, the estimated total solar mass from the 1859 event was roughly equivalent to the surface land of North America spread out over the entire solar system. Biesecker added: "The coronal event is massive when compared to the size of the planet."

A formal forecast of a possible global economic devastation from a coronal super storm was published by Elsevier in 2006.

The report states: "The consequences of a future 1859-caliber super storm event - were it to occur near the peak of the next sunspot cycle - are quite extensive and involve a range of human and technology impacts not unlike a major Force 5 hurricane or tsunami."

In satellites alone, a future 1859-type solar super storm could wipe out hundreds of existing telecom and GPS satellites, reduce the orbit of the $100 billion International Space Station and cause upward of $100 billion in damage and replacement costs.

Lister pointed to a 1989 solar storm that cost two large electric utilities - Hydro Quebec in Canada and PSE&G in New Jersey - more than $30 million in direct damage. Hydro Quebec subsequently spent more than $1.2 billion upgrading its power-grid system to reduce future solar effects.

A coronal event would likely be much more devastating as millions of watts of electromagnetic energy pouring out of the planet's polar regions would be instantly attracted to elaborate electrical power grids. Lister added: "When one of these things happen, the sun releases the energy equivalent of exploding about a billion megatons of nuclear weapons."

With existing NASA solar-monitoring satellites - most of which are ironically scheduled be out of service when the next event of solar maximum occurs in 2012 - NOAA monitors the sun for signature radiation events. Lister added: "The first signs will be spikes in optical radiation, X-rays and gamma radiation, which will reach Earth in eight to 10 minutes after the eruption."

If the event is a major coronal ejection, the radioactive mass will start entering the Earth's magnetic field between 11 and 24 hours after it leaves the surface of the sun. After that, electromagnetic hell will break loose.

"If it's a major coronal event, you'll likely see a major disassociation of ozone molecules in the upper atmosphere from the magnetic disruption," according to Lister. This will likely have the net effect of temporarily shredding the protective ozone layer.

"There will be dramatic increases in UV radiation, which is not good for either plants or humans on the Earth's surface," Lister said.

The disassociation of the ozone layer and other electromagnetic effects will "thicken the upper atmosphere of the planet" and increase drag on orbiting satellites and space vehicles, according to Lister. As the atmosphere becomes more dense, satellites will lose their orbital speed and hundreds may literally fall and burn up in the lower regions.

"Any cell phones or networks that have a satellite component or link will then instantly quit working or go to land-based backup systems," Lister said.

Today, engineers and technology designers must take a possible coronal event into consideration when mapping out new devices and space vehicles. Possible new flights to the moon and Mars must also consider the possibility of destructive solar debris.

"The Apollo astronauts were lucky," Lister said. "If one of these events had occurred during the Apollo program, there probably wasn't adequate shielding to protect them and they would have likely died on the moon."

Future visits to the moon will likely have to include the preparation of underground lunar shelters for protection, according to Lister.

Sunspot activity is governed by the solar cycle where the virtual polarity of the sun shifts every 22 years. The next "solar maximum" - when an ejection event becomes more likely - is forecast to take place in 2012, according to Biesecker.

However, an ejection event could literally occur at any point during the solar cycle. If you hear of an ejection alert from NOAA, be prepared for some major lifestyle changes.