The sun “sneezed” this week shooting plumes of gas towards the earth and endangering orbiting satellites, writes Claire Hills.

The “mass coronal ejection”, was recorded by the Solar & Heliospheric Observatory (SOHO), using a sun probe operated by NASA and the European Space Agency.

Scientists fear the sun is reaching a peak period of solar-flare activity.

A similar, but more severe ejection, destroyed a Japanese spacecraft and damaged other satellites last month.

Dr Tim O'Brian, lecturer at Manchester University's Jodrell Bank observatory, explained: “Plasma, which is ionised material, was ejected from the sun's outer atmosphere.”

O'Brian continued: “The sun has a natural cycle of activity – and every 11 years it peaks to release these sort of ejections.”

But the risks to space craft has been downplayed by Simon Clapham, Underwriter of the Marham Space Consortium at Lloyd's. He said: “As far as I am aware there is nothing to worry about – it is part of the risk of insuring space satellites.”

Satellites are underwritten by insurance markets the world over, from Lloyd's to AIG. According to Clapham the satellite insurance industry

is worth between $700m and $900m in premiums a year. He said: “1998 was a very poor year and 1999 is currently profitable.”