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To answer your questions in brief: The solar maximum is already here [December 1999]. It is not an abrupt event you can date, but the crest of a wave whose width is at least several years. From what I have heard, the current peak is lower than expected.
No one can predict a large solar storm months ahead of time--the best
we can say is that they are more frequent near the peak of the sunspot
cycle. Some big ones cause little disturbance near Earth--depends on
factors like the precise orientation of the interplanetary magnetic
field. Planetary alignments have no effect whatsoever. [See also next item.]
The large planets you read about are unlike anything in the solar system
--usually Jupiter-size or bigger, and very close to the star (this has to
do with the method of detection--it's hard to detect long-period planets).
No solar eruption has ever been found to affect the solid Earth. Their
energy is too small, and almost all of it is dissipated outside the
breathable atmosphere. No earthquakes follow CMEs.
I have no control over CNN. But if you seek to understand nature,
look up my site and sources linked or cited there.
The dust however is not collected by the comet in its orbit, but is part of its make up, probably dating back to the beginning of the solar system. Comets
may have two tails, and sometimes these are well separated, as in the recent
Comet Hale Bopp: they differ in color, composition, and direction,
and are pushed away from the Sun by different forces.
Dust tails are pushed by light pressure, and their colors are those
of sunlight, scattered by them the way clouds on Earth also scatter sunlight.
The other tails contain plasma--free electrons and ions, that is, atoms
from which sunlight has removed one or more electrons, leaving a positive
charge. They glow in the colors characteristic of their material (a bit like the
way streetlights produce the characteristic glow of sodium), and are pushed back by the solar wind. As explained on the above web page, the velocity of the solar wind is not too many times larger than that of the comet, and that
causes them to point not straight away from the Sun but at a small
angle to that direction.
Imagine you were able to rotate this arrangement by some angle--by 10°, 30°, 90° or whatever--around an axis perpendicular to the plane of the ecliptic. You rotate just the Earth and its orbit (and perhaps the Sun), while the rest of the universe stays as it is.
The relation between the Sun and the Earth then remains exactly as before--the only difference is that you are looking at it from a different
direction. Seasons and the apparent motion of the Sun across the sky
are still the same as they were.
What our imaginary rotation has done is exactly the same as what the
precession of the equinoxes does to the Earth's axis. So if an ancient monument is lined up to point at the Sun during solstice, it will continue doing so. Our calendar is also adjusted, so it would also remain the same day of the year.
On the other hand, an ancient monument aimed at a certain passage of a star would no longer fulfil its function, because now the axis of the Earth points towards a different part of the celestial sphere.