Switch to Desktop Site
 
 

Solar storms: New solar flare is largest in years

Solar storms have been picking up since 2008. A new flare Tuesday is the biggest in several years and is part of a pattern of solar storms scheduled to last until 2020.

Image

Solar storms: This image provided by NASA shows a solar flare early Tuesday, Aug. 9, the largest in 5 years. The image was was captured by NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory (SDO) in extreme ultraviolet light at 131 Angstroms. Scientists say the bursts of radiation hurled by the solar blast were not in the direction of Earth, so there’ll be little impact to satellites and communication systems.

NASA/AP

About these ads

An extremely powerful solar flare, the largest in over four years, rocked the sun early Tuesday (Aug. 9), but is unlikely to wreak any serious havoc here on Earth, scientists say.

"It was a big flare," said Joe Kunches, a space scientist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)'s Space Weather Prediction Center. "We lucked out because the site of the eruption at the sun was not facing the Earth, so we will probably feel no ill effects."

Today's solar flare began at 3:48 a.m. EDT (0748 GMT), and was rated a class X6.9 on the three-class scale scientists use to measure the strength of solar flares. The strongest type of solar eruption is class X, while class C represents the weakest and class M flares are medium-strength events. [Video: Aug. 9 Solar Flare Briefly Knocks Out HF Radio]

The flare is the largest one yet in the sun's current cycle, which began in 2008 and is expected to last until around 2020. Solar activity waxes and wanes over an 11-year sun weather cycle, with the star currently heading toward a solar maximum in 2013.

"This flare had a GOES X-ray magnitude of X6.9, meaning it was more than 3 times larger than the previous largest flare of this solar cycle - the X2.2 that occurred on Feb 15, 2011," scientists with NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory, a space observatory that monitors the sun, wrote in an update.

Before the Feb. 15 storm, the largest recent solar flare occurred in December 2006, when an X9-class solar storm erupted from the sun.

Solar flares occur when magnetic field lines on the sun get tangled up into knots, building potential energy until they reach a tipping point. Then, that energy is converted into heat, light and the motion of charged particles.

While all X-class solar eruptions are major events, they pose the greatest threat to Earth when they are aimed directly at the planet. During those events the sun often releases a cloud of plasma called a coronal mass ejection into space, and sometimes toward Earth. This ejection hurls charged particles that can damage satellites, endanger astronauts in orbit, and interfere with power systems, communications and other infrastructure on the planet.

About these ads

Today's solar flare, and resulting coronal mass ejection (CME) was not aimed at us, however. [Anatomy of Sun Storms & Solar Flares (Infographic)]

"Because of its position the CME is going to shoot out into space and not be Earth-directed, and we don’t expect any big geomagnetic storm with this," Kunches told SPACE.com. "We did luck out. If this would have happened a week ago, who knows?"

However, some VLF and HF radio communications blackouts have been reported, according to Spaceweather.com, a website that monitors space weather events.

Whatever particles do head our way should reach us in a few days.

"The cloud will probably miss Earth," SpaceWeather.com wrote. "At this time, however, we cannot rule out a glancing blow from the flank of the CME on or about August 11th."

The plus side of such a collision is often unusually spectacular auroras, or Northern and Southern Lights, which occur when charged particles interact with Earth's magnetic field.

You can follow SPACE.com senior writer Clara Moskowitz on Twitter @ClaraMoskowitz. Follow SPACE.com for the latest in space science and exploration news on Twitter @Spacedotcom and on Facebook.


Follow Stories Like This
Get the Monitor stories you care about delivered to your inbox.

Share

Loading...