Wow, That’s A Lot Of Sunspots! Aurora In The Forecast April 19-20

A very busy sun photographed early this morning with NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory. Sunspot region 2035 shot off a moderately strong M-class flare on April 16. NOAA forecasters predict a 60% chance for more flares today from one or more of the sunspot groups. Credit: NASA

I can’t recall seeing the sun this peppered with sunspots in a long time. Through the scope this morning I counted nine separate groups. No single spot or group stood out as unusually large, but the combined effect of seeing so many blemishes in one glance made an impression. I encourage you to point your telescope – suitably equipped with a safe solar filter of course – at the sun today to appreciate how fraught with magnetic activity our sun has become.

Each group marks a region on the sun’s shiny outer skin called the photosphere where magnetic energy is concentrated. Strong magnetic fields within a sunspot group quell the turbulent churning of the photosphere, chilling the region by several thousand degrees. Sunspots appear dark against the sun’s blazing disk because they’re cooler.

A powerful solar flare in sunspot region 2036 captured this morning around 8:30 a.m. CDT April 14 in extreme ultraviolet light by the Solar Dynamics Observatory. Credit: NASA

Energy stored in sunspots’ twisted magnetic fields can suddenly be released in violent, explosions called solar flares. Billions of tons of solar plasma – the sizzling mix of protons and electrons that composes the sun – are heated to millions of degrees during the explosion and rapidly accelerated into space. Radiation from radio waves to X-rays and gamma rays fan out at the speed of light. Fortunate for us, our atmosphere and planetary magnetic field protect us from most of what flares can dish out.

The powerful X4.9 solar flare of Feb. 25, 2014 recorded in six different wavelengths of ultraviolet light. Credit: NASA/SDO

Not everything though. Strong X-class flares can cause radio blackouts, damage satellite electronics and disrupt poorly protected power grids. They also can spark displays of northern lights. An M-class flare from sunspot region 2035 on April 16 may kick off auroras overnight Saturday April 19-20. NOAA forecasters predict a 25% chance of a minor auroral storm.

Video of February’s X4.9 flare shown in multiple wavelengths of light

Conditions are ideal if it comes to pass. Moonlight won’t be a problem and night temperatures are decidedly more pleasant than in February.

8 Responses

      1. Aloha Astro Bob and Everyone!

        I know…long time. Just know I rarely miss your ‘blog’ and as usual, find it (and the heavens) fascinating. ;-}
        Astro Bob? I’m sure everyone gets your “yoke” however, wouldn’t it have been better to say, “Easter eggs colored like the Aurora, of course!”, er, eh…heh…
        Sorry, just adding to the levity. I hope you have a pleasant Easter weekend and that everyone has as close to what they want to do. In other words, Happy Easter!
        Aloha Just For Now!

        1. astrobob

          Hi Wayne,
          Nice to hear from you again. Levity always appreciated. Happy Easter to you and your family!

  1. Edward M. Boll

    Last week, I predicted a peak brighness to Comet Jacques of magnitude 4. Now, I read that Micheal Mattaizzo, expert comet observer from Australia has stated that the present light curve would bring it to magnitude 3. He also states that if the comet follows the typical leveling off, then the comet would probably hit a peak of 4 or 5. Panstarrs K1 will likely get no brighter than around magnitude 6 or so.

    1. astrobob

      Thanks for your estimates, but I would add a word or caution about forecasting comet magnitudes. We know too well how fickle they are, especially newly discovered comets. And while C/2014 E2 may become that bright, it will be too close to the sun to see at that time. You’re right that Mattiazzo is an expert – he’s also observing the comet where it’s nearly overhead under exceptional skies. I saw it two nights ago and estimated its magnitude as 9.8. Like you, I hope it does become visible (dimly) with the naked eye but I’m not betting on it.

  2. Edward M. Boll

    Speaking of Northern Lights colored like Easter eggs, reminds me of the morning of October 22, 1989. I woke up that morning to see the most brilliant display of Northern Lights ever. While the best I had seen before were bright white, that morning, they were a variety of colors.

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