The sun’s solar flare activity appears to be hotting up: a massive X-Class solar flare erupted early on Sunday (Oct. 19) from a huge sunspot, and astronomers fear that this could just be the beginning of a spate of sizeable flares.
Solar flares are explosions of energetic radiation that can have potentially devastating effects on our communication systems, causing radio blackouts and affecting satellite measurements. Flares are categorised into three types, with grade C being the least powerful, grade M a medium-level flare, and grade X being the most powerful of all. NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory (SDO) spacecraft captured images of the latest huge flare which was classified as a formidable X1.1.
Though incredibly powerful, Sunday’s flare did not match the intensity of the great X4.9 flare which was ejected in February of this year, but scientists are worried that it could just be the first in a flurry of much larger flares to come.
Its source was an enormous sunspot labelled AR (Active Region) 2192, which is increasing in size and at 78,000 miles (125,000 kilometers) wide, is currently almost as large as the planet Jupiter.
"Since [Sunday’s flare], the sunspot has almost doubled in size and developed an increasingly unstable ‘beta-gamma-delta’ magnetic field," Spaceweather.com’s Tony Phillips wrote in an update. "It would seem to be just a matter of time before another strong explosion occurs."
AR2192 has not caused us any real issues to date, primarily because it has been facing away from our planet, but this situation is set to change as it appears to be rotating around towards Earth. Solar flares are usually accompanied by coronal mass ejections (CMEs), which are lethal plumes of intensely hot solar plasma that are blasted into space at incomprehensible speeds; CMEs with an earth-bound trajectory can seriously disrupt power grids and radio communications.
Our sun is currently approaching the peak of its 11-year activity cycle, which is known as Solar Cycle 24, though scientists report that its solar max is actually the weakest one in a century or so. A century ago, our infrastructure was not so vulnerable to its might, however, so a serious X-class flare pointed in the right direction could still have a profound effect on our daily lives.
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