A 3rd X-class Flare Rocks The Sun

The latest X3.2 flare in far ultraviolet light at 8:16 p.m. CDT Monday evening May 13 (May 14 Universal Time) photographed by the Solar Dynamics Observatory. Credit: NASA

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.

Another ultraviolet picture of the sun taken by NASA’s STEREO Behind spacecraft late on May 13. The flare looks like a giant spike because the brilliance of the explosion saturated the camera sensors. STEREO Behind orbits well behind Earth and sees a part of the sun’s backside not visible with Earth-based telescopes. Click to learn more about the STEREO probes. Credit: NASA

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.

The sun in normal white light late Monday with sunspot groups labeled. Region 1748 – site of the strong flares of the past few days –  is just coming into view at far left. Credit: NASA

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.

A healthy CME (coronal mass ejection) in the wake of the most recent X3.2 flare late Monday. This photo was taken by the Solar and Heliospheric Observatory which uses a special mask to block out the bright sun to better photograph it outer atmosphere. Credit: NASA / ESA

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.

18 Responses

  1. RC

    How are sun spots numbered? It seems pretty obvious that they’re in numerical order, but is there just one “all time” list, or does the list “restart” every decade, or every solar maximum/minimum?

    1. astrobob

      Great question. The numbering system in effect now started on Jan. 5, 1972. When active region (sunspot group) 10,000 was reached in June 2002, NOAA dropped the first four digits and started with “1” again with 10,000 implied. So sunspot group 1748 is really number 11,748. You can see they did this so the numbers wouldn’t become unwieldy. By the way, sunspot numbers are counted this way: each group counts as 10 spots PLUS the count of all the individual spots. So a group of 15 sunspots counts as 25.

      1. RC

        Why do they add 10 to the number of indivicual spots? Is it to account for smaller spots which may not be seen?

        1. astrobob

          Yes, that’s part of the reason. The other part is that we’re talking two different entities – individual spots and groups. The method was set up to recognize each.

  2. Tim Hutton

    That’s cool info. above. Now Space Weather.com is reporting an X20+! Do you know if the X28 in 2003 was facing Earth?

    1. astrobob

      Hi Tim,
      Finally got to Spaceweather but they and other sites make no mention of an X20 flare today. The X28 in 2003 was not Earth-directed – it shot off the western limb. You can see it in images and videos by clicking on the “most energetic flare” link in today’s blog.

  3. Tim Hutton

    Spaceweather is slow to get on today. They list it at 0323 UT. Wish I had a Solar telescope.

    1. astrobob

      I checked NOAA 5-minute plots and no X20 flares are shown. Matter of fact, since the earlier X3.2 flare, there’s been nothing above C class (very low). Maybe someone’s referring back to the X20 we had a few years ago. I also checked back to Spaceweather and there’s nothing there about an X20. Where are you seeing this information?

  4. Tim Hutton

    I have trouble figuring out the SOHO site. Didn’t even know about the “Hot Shots” area. That’s really cool. I probably just need to spend more time poking around at the info.

  5. Tim Hutton

    This is getting weird. I’m seeing it under “Current Conditions” X-ray Solar Flares on Spaceweather.com. However, like you I don’t see it on the “GOES X-ray Flux” chart. Maybe it’s a fluke….sorry.

  6. Neutral Fool

    Can someone tell me what direction these cmes headed as far as towards what constellation or other fixed stars?…..or even towards what closest planet. I was wondering about patterns of the x flares of the sun and their direction in a astrology type of way. The numbers are for you smart ones, I need the translation to know where these cmes are heading at a fixed time of execution in terms of constellations or etc. All this from the suns point of view and not earths for the time being please. Also what house {astrology}direction would the flare be heading would be a bonus from anyone who can help.. When the Sun throws its energy out like it does I like to know where its heading for deeper understanding if possible. Thanks again !!

    1. astrobob

      None of these flares happen to be headed for any planets. As for constellations, these are large entities with stars at a wide variety of distances from the sun. All are too far to be affected physically by solar flares. For what it’s worth, the most recent flares blasted in the direction of the constellation Cancer. Check out this awesome online orrery to find where the planets are in relation to the sun anytime: http://dd.dynamicdiagrams.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/01/orrery_2006.swf

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