Monster sunspot could stir up auroras

The sun photographed this morning by NASA’s Solar Dynamics Telescope at 11:30 a.m. CDT this morning October 18. Credit: NASA

Not today and not tomorrow, but a monster sunspot group rounding the eastern limb of the sun could spunk up the fall aurora season. Active region 2192 harbors a Jupiter-sized sunspot that’s just now visible with the naked eye using a safe solar mylar filter or #14 welder’s glass. I spotted it very close to the southeastern edge of the sun today. In the coming days, it will rotate into better view, making for an easy catch with the naked eye or small telescope. I can’t emphasize enough the importance of a safe filter. You can purchase one HERE for naked eye viewing or HERE for your telescope.

Coronal mass ejection shot out by flare activity in new sunspot group 2192 on October 14 before it even rounded the sun’s limb. Image from the SOHO coronagraph. Click for video. Credit: NASA/ESA

Even before the behemoth came into view, it spawned a brilliant coronal mass ejection on October 14 and several M-class medium strength flares. If we assume that the giant spot stays potent, the sun will rotate it around to face Earth in about 6 days. Flaring and other activity would then stream in our direction.

It will also spice up the partial solar eclipse next Thursday afternoon. Watch for the black limb of the moon to not only eclipse the sun but this sunspot too!

Update: Sunspot group 2192 unleashed an strong X-1 class flare around midnight Oct. 18-19. Any material it may have launched into space would have missed Earth by a wide margin because of the group’s position near the sun’s edge.

Nearby red dwarf star unleashes X100,000 superflare

The largest flare ever recorded on the sun, an X 45 event in November 2003, pales in comparison to the estimated X 100,000 flare seen on the red dwarf star DG CVn on April 23 by NASA’s Swift satellite. The sun image is an actual photo; the dwarf star flare an artist’s view. Credit: NASA

Sometimes big things come in small packages. Last April, DG CVn, a red dwarf star only one-third the size of the sun, cut loose with a flare 10,000 times more powerful than any solar flare ever recorded. The sun’s grandest was an X 45 on November 4, 2003 which happily was directed off its western limb away from Earth. Had it happened closer to the center of the solar disk, damage to satellite electronics and power grids on the ground might have been substantial.

NASA’s Swift mission detected a record-setting series of X-ray flares unleashed by DG CVn, a nearby binary consisting of two red dwarf stars, illustrated here. At its peak, the initial flare was brighter in X-rays than the combined light from both stars at all wavelengths under normal conditions. Credit: NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center/S. Wiessinger

The superflare erupted from one or the other of two closely-orbiting red dwarfs in the constellation of Canes Venatici (abbreviated CVn) located beneath the handle of the Big Dipper. While only 60 light years from Earth, the two stars orbit each other only three times Earth’s distance from the sun which is too close for the Swift satellite to know which one did the deed.

At its peak the flare shot up to 360 million degrees F (200 million C) or 12 times hotter than the center of the sun. Despite its magnitude, the star is too far away to pose any harm to Earth. As to how a smaller, cooler dwarf could unleash such an energetic blast, we have two important leads.

The sun still has a lot pep left. This M7.3 (medium class) flare erupted along the sun’s western edge on October 2 as seen by the Solar Dynamics Observatory. It was not Earth-directed. Credit: NASA

Astronomers estimate DG CVn was born about 30 million years ago, which makes it less than 0.7% the age of the solar system. Like children, youthful stars are blessed with energy and show it through rapid rotation – DG completes one spin in just under a day or 30 times faster than the sun. The sun also rotated faster in its youth and may well have produced a few of its own superflares. Now it spins once every 27 days, fast enough to amplify magnetic fields to X-class strength but no match for the younger set.

Magnetic energy gets concentrated around sunspots or starspots in the case of DG CVn. In the turbulent environment, opposite polarities (north and south poles) can snap together and reconnect, releasing gobs of stored energy as a flare.

Flares are classified according to their energy output. The weakest – A,B and C-class – have almost no effect on Earth. M-class or medium flares accompanied by blasts of solar particles can cause radio blackouts and fire up northern and southern lights. The strongest are the X-class, which can lead to long-lasting radiation storms and nights-long auroral displays.

Aftermath of the X 45 flare in November 2003 clearly shows loops of solar gases outlining the powerful magnetic field rising above the sunspot group (not visible) below. Credit: NASA

At 5:07 p.m. EDT on April 23, the rising tide of X-rays from DG CVn’s superflare triggered Swift’s Burst Alert Telescope (BAT).

“For about three minutes after the BAT trigger, the superflare’s X-ray brightness was greater than the combined luminosity of both stars at all wavelengths under normal conditions,” noted Goddard’s Adam Kowalski, who is leading a detailed study on the event. “Flares this large from red dwarfs are exceedingly rare.”

Three hours later the system exploded with another weaker flare. More flares continued in a series for the next 11 days like aftershocks from an earthquake. Astronomers have observed the same phenomenon with the sun called “sympathetic flaring” where one explosion triggers another.

Stars delight the eye and make the Earth an abode for life, but don’t get too close. They’re scary.

 

Twin solar storms may stoke auroras tonight Sept. 11-12

A CME or coronal mass ejection from the sun on September 9 is expected to pass Earth later today and possibly spark auroras tonight. Credit: NASA/ESA

(Click HERE for updates))

Two bursts of solar particles propelled by flares on September 9th and 10th are expected to arrive starting tonight and possibly touch off a moderate G2 geomagnetic storm. Translation: auroras may bloom in the next few nights!

A moderate M4 flare occurred early on September 9th followed by a more powerful X1.6 yesterday afternoon. Provided the magnetic field the particles come packaged in points in the right direction – south – these bursts have good potential for creating auroras tonight and again over the weekend.

A second, Earth-directed CME leaves the sun in the wake of the X1.6 flare on September 10th. Credit: NASA/ESA

The timing is good because the moon is past full and won’t be too bright. During a moderate storm, auroras are often seen across the northern tier of states and Canada. According to the latest NOAA space weather forecast, activity should kick up but remain shy of storm level from 9 p.m.-midnight Central Daylight Time tonight September 11th.

The brunt of the storm is expected from 1-4 a.m. tomorrow morning the 12th with effects lasting until 7 a.m.

This may only be the start of an even stronger storm anticipated Friday night and continuing into the weekend beginning from yesterday’s flare. That one blasted material directly toward Earth. Always a good omen for auroras.

Earth’s magnetic bubble, generated by motions within its iron-nickel core and shaped by the solar wind, is called the magnetosphere. It extends some 40,000 miles forward of the planet and more than 3.9 million miles in the tailward direction. Credit: NASA

As always with northern lights, keep in mind they’re fickle. Most of the time, Earth’s magnetic defense – a humongous, teardrop-shaped bubble of magnetism called the magnetosphere –  acts as a bulwark against strong solar winds, letting them slide by harmlessly. We’ll see what happens on this round, but I’m optimistic.

The Earth weather forecast for my locale is mostly clear tonight, so I’ll be monitoring the sky. Stop back later for an update.

* UPDATE 9 p.m. CDT: Quiet so far. Auroras still holed up in Hudson Bay and Quebec. The magnetic field direction of the arriving wind from the sun shows a lot of variation (see ACE satellite plot, topmost graph showing Bz) rising and falling from positive to negative. Negative is good! A prolonged stay at -10 or lower increase the chance of seeing the aurora.

Shhh! Don’t wake the sun

Contrast these views of the nearly spotless sun on July 16-17, 2014 with a picture taken about two weeks earlier (below). Credit: Giorgio Rizzarelli

Who doesn’t enjoy a nap on a lazy summer afternoon? That’s what the sun’s been up to past few days. Instead of a steady parade of sunspots, it put its pencils away and went to sleep. For a time on July 17 not a singe magnetic blemish marred the entire Earth-facing hemisphere. The last time that happened was nearly 3 years ago on Aug. 14, 2011.

Ten groups including three visible with the naked eye dot the sun on July 8, 2014. Credit: NASA

The solar blank stare lasted but a day; by the 18th two small groups emerged. Today three little spot clusters have emerged but again, they’re on the small side.

I think the reason the sun looks so stark is that only two weeks ago nearly a dozen sunspot regions freckled the disk including three visible with the naked eye with a safe solar filter.

These ups and downs aren’t unusual unless this downturn continues for weeks. Expect more bubbles of magnetic energy to rise from beneath the glaring surface of the sun called the photosphere and spawn fresh groups soon. Because we now have eyes on the farside of the sun courtesy of the dual STEREO solar probes, we know the complete story. There are at least seven spotted regions in hiding there today.

Sunspot numbers are plotted for the last three solar cycles through the present. The double peak of the current cycle is shown. Credit: NASA

Sunspots and flares peak approximately every 11 years. We’re still riding the roller coaster near the top of the arc after the most recent solar maximum in late 2013. Some maxima are strong, others weak. The current max – Cycle 24 – is the weakest since Cycle 14 in February of 1906 and one of the wimpiest on record. Occasionally a cycle will have two peaks like the current one. The first peak occurred in Feb. 2012 and the second just this past June. What makes Cycle 24 even more unusual is that the second peak is higher than the first – the first time this has ever been recorded. Like people, every maximum has a personality of its own.

Doug Bieseker of the NOAA Space Weather Prediction Center has analyzed historical records of solar activity and he finds that most large events such as strong flares and significant geomagnetic storms typically occur in the declining phase of solar cycles—even weak ones, so don’t give up hope for some great auroral displays ahead.

A coronal mass ejection blew off on the farside of the sun early this morning July 20. It appears to envelop Jupiter, but the planet is 490 million miles in the background. SOHO uses an occulting disk to block the brilliant sun. Credit: NASA/ESA

The sun’s got a buddy this week – Jupiter! We can’t see the planet from the ground because it’s swamped by solar glare, but the Solar and Heliospheric Observatory (SOHO) has a great view from space. Watch the sun approach from the right and pass the planet over the next few days. After the 24th, Jupiter will move into the morning sky.

Huge sunspots scar the sun this week

Ten groups including three visible with the naked eye protected with a safe filter dot the sun today. Photo by the Solar Dynamics Observatory (SDO) taken at 8 a.m. CDT today July 9. Credit: NASA

A trio of impressive sunspot groups are parading across the sun’s face this week. Regions 2108, 2109 and 2110 are all closely-spaced and near the center of the disk today. All three require nothing more than a pair of eyes and a safe solar filter to view.

The sun seen through a standard 200mm telephoto lens and solar filter this morning gives you an idea of how the big sunspot groups look to the naked eye. Credit: Bob King

I took a look through my handy #14 welders glass this morning and saw 2110 distinctly; the other two groups blended into a single ‘spot’ at first. Looking closely I could barely split them into two separate dots. The view was spectacular at 30x in my little telescope with a total of ten sunspot groups and lots of fine detail in the three biggest.

Given high sunspot counts, the chance for flaring has been increasing in recent days. Today there’s a 75% chance for moderately strong M-class flares and 20% chance for the most powerful X-class variety.

Safe solar filters come in several varieties of optical / coated plastic and glass. Click to see ones you can purchase from Rainbow Symphony. Credit: Bob King

Curiously, none of the three biggies has shot off a large flare in the past day or two; they’re all currently stable. But the inconspicuous group 2113 fired off a beefy M6 flare only yesterday. It’s not expected to affect Earth, but because 2113 hides a complex magnetic field, future M-class or stronger blasts may be possible.

M6-class solar flare eruption from sunspot group 2113 captured July 8, 2014 at 11:24 a.m. by SDO. Credit: NASA

It seems like we’re due for aurora, so I’d be surprised if the current activity doesn’t lead to at least a minor storm soon. I’ll keep you updated.

Boom! Boom! Boom! A solar flare triple crown

Three X-class flares erupted in sunspot group 2087 over a 24-hour period on June 10-11, 2014. A portion of the coronal mass ejections from the eruptions may brush the Earth in the next few days. Credit: NASA

Move over California Chrome.  After delivering three X-class flares in two days, sunspot group 2087 wins the triple crown for solar eruptions. And the fun’s not over yet.

The large, complex sunspot region 2087, pictured today June 12 at 8:30 a.m CDT, kicked off three powerful X-class flares on June 10 and 11. More flares are expected from the group in the coming days as it turns toward the Earth. Credit: NASA

Between it and two other spotted regions (2080, 2085) there’s a 60% chance for moderate M-class flares and 30% chance for more X-flares through Saturday. Plus, it turns out that part of the blast from 2087′s double-X flare is whooshing its way toward Earth right now.

Look at all the sunspots! Skywatchers with safe solar filters have a bounty of observing opportunities this week. Catch the big groups 2080 and 2085 (far right) before they rotate over to the sun’s other side. Credit: NASA

Most of the solar plasma blasted sideways off the sun after the eruptions but not all. NOAA space weather forecasters now predict a 20-25% chance of minor auroral storming overnight tonight through Saturday. With each day that passes, region 2087 inches closes to the center of the sun, where it will face Earth more directly, improving the outlook for auroras in the wake of new flares.

New sunspot group enters the stage with guns a-blazing

If ever an “X marked the spot”, this ‘x’ is it. It’s the first of a pair of x-ray flares that popped this morning at 6:42 a.m. CDT in sunspot region 2087. Photo taken in extreme ultraviolet light by NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory. Credit: NASA

Sunspot region 2087 announced its arrival on the sun’s southeastern limb today with a real show of firepower. Like a double-barreled shotgun, the group blasted off an X2.2 flare at 6:42 a.m. CDT followed 70 minutes later by an X1.5 at 7:52.

The second flare, an X1.5, peaked around 7:57 a.m. CDT today June 10. Credit: NASA

Although neither was directly in line with Earth, ultraviolet light from the explosions caused a wave of ionization in our planet’s upper atmosphere that affected radio propagation over Europe. Images from NASA’s STEREO solar spacecraft show a coronal mass ejection moving off to one side of the side. It’s not expected to affect the Earth.

The lively sunspot group 2087 has just rotated around the southeastern limb of the sun. 2080 and 2085 are both magnetically complex groups that could spawn M-class flares of their own. Photo taken this afternoon at 1:15 p.m. CDT. Credit: NASA / SDO

Interestingly, the ACE spacecraft, which measures changes in the direction of the magnetic field bundled with the solar wind, dipped south right around the time of the flares. While the two events may be unrelated, anytime the field tilts south, conditions are opportune for the sun’s particle wind to hook into Earth’s magnetic field and possibly fire up auroras.

A large coronal mass ejection, sparked by the double-flare photographed at 9:39 a.m. today by NASA’s STEREO-B spacecraft, expands away from the sun. Credit: NASA

Though it may not be related, the magnetic direction of the wind has been rapidly shifting from north and south all morning and afternoon. Solar astronomers had expected to see flares from sunspot regions 2080 and 2085. Both have complicated delta class magnetic fields ripe with the potential for sparking solar storms. Both also squarely face the Earth. Should an X-class flare erupt in either, the material ejected could wind up producing a geomagnetic storm and accompanying northern lights later this week. So far, they’ve been ‘quiet’ today.

There’s also a chance the plasma cloud released by the X-flare blasts could strike a glancing blow to Earth’s magnetic field; the new group may also continue to produce flares as it rotates into a favorable, Earth-facing position on the sun’s disk.

March monster flare gives NASA an eyeful

A up-close view of the March 29 X-1 flare taken by NASA’s IRIS spacecraft. Flares are colossal explosions that occur when strong magnetic fields – often over complex sunspot groups –  get twisted and then reconnect, releasing vast amounts of stored energy. Credit: NASA

On March 29 this year, sunspot group 2017 unleashed a powerful X1-class flare seen by more telescopes on Earth and in space than any other flare in history.

Four different NASA spacecraft and one ground-based observatory captured photos and data of the solar storm in multiple wavelengths of light. Fortuitously, three of them had been aimed on the group a day in advance in anticipation of a possible eruption.

Views of the flare in three different wavelengths of ultraviolet light made by NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory (SDO). The big spikes at left show that the flare was so intense it saturated the instrument’s detector. Credit: NASA

“This is the most comprehensive data set ever collected by NASA’s Heliophysics Systems Observatory,” said Jonathan Cirtain, project scientist for Hinode at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center.

Different telescopes shoot at different resolutions. SDO is optimized for taking full-disk photos of the sun. Enlarging the spot group where the flare occurred results in a blurry image (left). At right, the Dunn Solar Telescope provides a much more detailed view. The white patch is the flare in near-visible light. Credit: NASA (left) and NSO

“Some of the spacecraft observe the whole sun all the time,” added Cirtain, “but three of the observatories had coordinated in advance to focus on a specific active region of the sun. We need at least a day to program in observation time and the target – so it was extremely fortunate that we caught this X-class flare.”

In NASA’s RHESSI space telescope, which records extreme temperatures on the sun, the flare appears as a series of three hot spots (purple) superimposed on the IRIS image. The two at left are near the surface; the other high above. Credit: NASA

The battery of instruments involved included three NASA orbiting telescopes – the Interface Region Imaging Spectrograph (IRIS); Solar Dynamics Observatory (SDO); Reuven Ramaty High Energy Solar Spectroscopic Imager (RHESSI); the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency’s Hinode; and the National Solar Observatory’s Dunn Solar Telescope located at Sacramento Peak in New Mexico.


A nice summary of observations made by all the telescopes of the March 29 flare

Instruments on the observatories are planned so that each shows a different aspect of the flare at a different heights above the sun’s surface and at different temperatures. Together they can provided a comprehensive 3D view of one of nature’s most powerful blasts.

The images and video record flare material extending from the solar surface called the photosphere (literally ‘sphere of light’) to more than 3,000 miles high (4,800 km) – well beyond the top of the chromosphere, the lowest level of the sun’s atmosphere.

Cutaway showing the different layers of the sun’s atmosphere. Credit: NASA

Chromosphere means ‘sphere of color’ and comprises the realm of the beautiful flaming red prominences see during total solar eclipses. Temperatures there are hotter than the sun’s 10,000-degree F surface, rising from 11,000 degrees to about 36,000 degrees. Hydrogen gas, what the sun’s mostly made of, glows a deep red at these toasty temps.

Once you reach about 1,250 miles (2,000 km) the chromosphere transitions to the much more extensive solar corona. It’s here that the solar wind originates, that stream of subatomic particles – electrons and protons – blown into space at many miles a second. The violence of solar flares can also blast material out of the corona as a coronal mass ejection.

Flares affect all layers of the sun’s atmosphere. With awesome amounts of data in hand from the March 29 solar storm, scientists are now hard at work teasing out a more detailed picture of how a flare gets started and where it goes from there.

 

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.

Aurora alert for northern U.S. tonight Feb. 27-28

Click image to watch video of the X4.9 flare on Feb. 25 in multiple wavelengths of light / Solar Dynamics Observatory

Lots of movement in the northern lights over Hamburg, Germany this evening Feb. 27-28, 2014. Submitted by Daniel Fischer

A spectacular solar X4.9 solar flare from returning sunspot group AR 1967 on Feb. 25 wasn’t supposed to have much affect on Earth. Surprise! Even though the plasma blast shot off to one side of the sun’s disk, our planet’s magnetic bubble received a glancing blow from the explosion this afternoon. Talk about explosion – swarms of electrons and protons left the sun at an estimated 4.4 million mph!

Still image of the X4.9 flare on Feb. 25. Notice that it’s aimed well off to the left. If it had occurred near the center of the disk, its effects on Earth would be more severe. This flare is the strongest yet this year and one of the strongest in the current sunspot cycle. Credit: NASA

As of 5 p.m. CST, a moderate G2 geomagnetic storm is in progress with strong auroras flaring up over across Europe as far south as southern Germany. Should the activity continue, skywatchers in the northern U.S. and possibly farther south will have a good chance at seeing the northern lights tonight. With no moon present, conditions will be ideal for aurora watching. Start looking as soon as possible after twilight ends this evening.

Click HERE to see the extent of the auroral oval, which will help you determine if northern lights might be visible from your location. I’ll update as needed. Good luck!

A quiet affair. The aurora from north of Duluth, Minn. U.S. Thursday night Feb. 27, 2014. Temperature -30 F. Credit: Bob King

UPDATE 9 p.m. CST: Aurora out here in Duluth as a so-far quiet bright arc low in the northern sky.