Solar activity’s been rising like nobody’s business. Two of the year’s most powerful flares fired off from the sun’s backside late Sunday and at least 8 spot groups speckle the sun’s white-hot surface today.
Now we can add a third strong X-ray class flare, an X3.2 that spewed a vast cloud of high-speed solar gases called a coronal mass ejection (CME). Lucky for Earth, it was directed – as the other flares were – away from our planet off the eastern edge of the sun’s disk.
The most energetic flare measured in the modern era occurred on November 4, 2003 during the last solar maximum. No one knows how truly strong it became since the sensors topped out at X28. But any flare in the X-category can affect everything from GPS satellites to radio communications, satellite electronics and even fry poorly-protected power grids.
Solar flares typically occur in sunspot groups where magnetic energy is concentrated. The solar surface, which bubbles and churns like a monster pot of hot oatmeal, brings opposite magnetic fields (north and south poles) in contact with one another. When they reconnect, the sudden release of energy heats solar gases to many millions of degrees and blasts billions of solar electrons and protons into space as a CME.
The amount of energy from a big flare like the ones we’ve seen recently equals millions of thermonuclear (hydrogen) bombs.
The sunspot group responsible for all the current feistiness goes by the name of 1748; it’s just coming around to the sun’s front side. Though highly foreshortened because we’re peering at it along the extreme edge of the sun, you can tell it’s a big one. Let’s hope it kicks and sputters its way to a northern lights display without any serious damage to our favorite toys.