Sun on a roll, kicks out a pair of powerful X-class flares today

Dramatic X2.1 solar flare from sunspot region 1882 photographed in blend of ultraviolet light earlier today by the Solar Dynamics Observatory. Click to enlarge. Credit: NASA/SDO/GSFC

After being asleep at the wheel the past couple months, the sun’s very much back in the game. Earlier this week, medium-class flares from two big sunspot groups made the news. Now, new sunspot group 1882, which rounded the eastern edge of the sun just yesterday, fired off not one but two powerful X-class flares earlier today – an X1.7 at 3:01 a.m. CDT and an X2.1 at 10:03 a.m. Together the renewed activity indicates the current solar or sunspot cycle still has some life left despite being the smallest or weakest since February 1906.

The X 1.7 flare from sunspot group 1882 popped off at 3:01 a.m. Central time today Oct. 25. The image shows light in the 131-angstrom wavelength (deep ultraviolet), which is good for seeing material at the extreme temperatures of a solar flare, and which is typically colorized in teal. Click to see more SDO images. Credit: NASA/ SDO

Sunspots, flares and other solar activity recur in cycles lasting about 11 years. At cycle bottom, weeks can go by without a single spot marring the sun’s perfect white disk. During peak activity, sunspots and the flares they spawn are routine with some spots large enough to easily see with the naked eye and safe solar filter.

Some cycles like those that maxed in 1989 and 2001 are double-peaked with a lull between periods of high activity. Cycle 24 appears to be shaping up to be the same with an early peak in 2011, a dip in 2012 and early 2013 and the present upswing. We’ll have to watch to be sure.

The sun with our three featured sunspot groups photographed at 2:15 p.m. CDT this afternoon. This is how the sun looks in a small, filtered telescope. Credit: NASA/ SDO

Moments ago I looked at the sun in a small telescope and can tell you firsthand it’s a spotty beast. The two large groups – active regions 1875 and 1877 – dominate the disk, but up-and-comer 1882 looks impressive with a pair of large, dark spots leading the parade.

For quick solar views I use a 3-inch refracting telescope outfitted with a glass filter that removes of the incoming sunlight to create a safe and comfortable image. If you have a telescope I highly recommend purchasing a filter, so you can enjoy the daily march and evolution of sunspot groups as they cross from east to west across the sun’s face. Large, active groups can often be followed from the time they enter the disk until the sun’s rotation carries them to the other side, a period of about two weeks. Changes in sunspot number and appearance greet the eye every single day. Check out Orion Telescopes,  Thousand Oaks Optical or Kendrick Astro Instruments for more information about purchasing a safe filter.

Click image to watch an animation of the X1.7 solar flare. Shortly before and after the explosion, large dark filaments – dense, cool gas held in place by the solar magnetic fields – erupt from the sun. The first one happens in the upper left quadrant; the second in the lower left. All three events may be related and part of a global storm. Credit: NASA/ SDO and Spaceweather.com

With the sun, you never quite know what to expect. After all, it’s a star, full of fire and fury just like the tiny, twinkling ones dotting the night sky. And while they appear deceptively peaceful, the sun teaches us that stars are anything but.

While X-class flares are major events and can cause potential damage to satellite electronics and poorly protected power grids on the ground, Earth’s atmosphere acts as a protective blanket from both particle bombardment and the damaging ultraviolet and X-ray radiation they fling out way. Thank your lucky stars the next time you see the aurora pulsing overhead – a very real probability in light of the latest uptick – knowing that the air molecules are doing their job of shielding life from the sun’s stormy moods.

“A 100,000 mile frequent flyer gets about 20 chest X-rays,” says Chris Mertens, a senior research scientist at NASA Langley Research Center. Flying high means more exposure to cosmic and solar radiation. Click photo to learn more and watch a video on the topic. Credit: NASA

The atmosphere isn’t the perfect defense especially if you spend a lot of time flying. Radiation from strong solar storms as well as cosmic rays and their by-products can reach down to altitudes flown by commercial airlines, increasing a passenger’s risk of developing cancer over time. Dose rates in over-the-pole flights to destinations like the Far East are 3-5 times higher than flights closer to the equator. Earth’s magnetic field guides cosmic rays and solar particles straight to the polar regions.

Having just returned from 9 hours at 35,000 feet I do feel a little crispy, but the jet lag’s much worse.

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About astrobob

My name is Bob King and I work at the Duluth News Tribune in Duluth, Minn. as a photographer and photo editor. I'm also an amateur astronomer and have been keen on the sky since age 11. My modest credentials include membership in the American Association of Variable Star Observers (AAVSO) where I'm a regular contributor, International Meteorite Collectors Assn. and Arrowhead Astronomical Society. I also teach community education astronomy classes at our local planetarium.

15 thoughts on “Sun on a roll, kicks out a pair of powerful X-class flares today

  1. No Northern Lights this morning. Very clear. But work kept me from taking my binoculars out. Next chance Sunday morning.

  2. So, I’m a loyal follower, but only a backyard night sky “enjoyer”. No telescope, just binocs.
    Is there a way I can have my phone alert me of your evening/night posts that the northern lights are active? I have to say I don’t tweet, facebook or network that way. I do have a text address I can submit for notices.
    Is this an option?
    Thanks in advance and also for your DNT photos, blogs, and journals from north of our fair city.
    J.

    • Hi Jeannette,
      I’m happy you follow the blog – thanks! I wish there were a phone message I could send but I’m not set up to do it. The best I can do Twitter. If you subscribe to my feed, you’ll get the alerts. I know that Spaceweather has a phone message service but they charge for it.

  3. Wow,certainly seems like the Sun got a wakeup call! If group 1882 can send off an Earth-directed flare in coming days,it could get interesting! Confess to a bit of nervousness with this increase in solar activity just as Ison is about to begin the last leg of its inward journey.A comet disrupting CME is NOT what the doctor ordered…..

  4. Yesterday again breathtaking Sun in scope. I soon discovered the new 1882 spot on E limb, and noticed that also this one is in equatorial zone, a new confirm that we’re in the middle of the maximum.
    I saw 1875&77 “naked eye” in full day with just eclipse glasses (+ lunar filters). I also got the three spot groups with a simple unfiltered tele-lens, using clouds as filter.
    All pics on my Facebook page.

  5. Global, or interconnected, Sun activity also yesterday (day 26).
    Bob, I have a couple of questions.. Is there a place where I can download in bulk all images of the Sun disc in visible light (both small annotated with spot numbers, and big) which are published daily on Spaceweather? I often download them as references for the shots I take and to see the evolution of the remarkable spots, but downloading one photo at a time is long. The other question is similar: can you suggest a site or webpage containing a list by date of the past Sun remarkable phenomenons (strong flares, strong eruptions/CME, radio bursts etc)? I could do researches on web y myself, but thought to ask you before since I think you may use such archives for your reference. Thanx!

  6. I live in WA state, and was watching Jupiter from about 1-3 am above the eastern horizon this morning. Jupiter seemed to randomly become very dim, then brighten again several times. So much so, that I thought I may have been seeing a light from an airplane! (Once I got the telescope out, I realized it was for sure Jupiter.) The sky was completely clear as well.

    I did an internet search on why Jupiter might fade and brighten like that. I found something saying that solar flares may cause this! So…is that what I was seeing happen?!

    • Hi Janae,
      Way to go to bring the scope out for a confirmation. Solar flares do not affect Jupiter’s brightness. What you describe sounds like occasional passing clouds, perhaps thin clouds like cirrus that don’t look obvious to the eye at night. I’ve seen this too especially from dark sky sites where it’s hard to know patchy clouds are out.

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