Pictures: The Sun’s Recent Flares

This image of the sun's surface on Oct. 25, 2013, was captured by NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory, and shows a powerful X2.1 class solar flare,  appearing as the bright flash on the left. Image Credit: NASA/SDO/GSFC
This image of the sun’s surface on October 25, 2013, was captured by NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory, and shows a powerful X2.1 class solar flare, appearing as the bright flash on the left.
Image Credit: NASA/SDO/GSFC

The sun appears to be throwing a bit of a tantrum. With three powerful solar flares and a giant cloud of super-hot plasma hurled toward Earth in the past week, it looks as if our home star is awakening from slumber as it approaches the natural peak of its 11-year cycle, the solar maximum. (Related: “Solar Flare: What If Biggest Known Sun Storm Hit Today?”)

After nearly four months with little activity, the sun unleashed three X-class solar flares from October 23 to October 28. More than 15 additional M-class flares have also erupted in that time frame, originating from an active sunspot region called AR1875.

Solar flarespowerful bursts of radiation flung off the sun’s surfacecan cause disturbances in Earth’s atmosphere and disrupt GPS and radio signals. The disruptions can last for as long as the flares, anywhere from minutes to hours.

One of the larger flares was classified as an X1.0-class flare, which peaked on October 27 at 10:03 p.m. EDT.

An X1.0-class flare exploded off the right side of the sun, peaking at 10:03 p.m. EDT on Oct. 27, 2013. This image was captured by NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory.   Image Credit: NASA/SDO
An X1.0-class flare exploded off the right side of the sun, peaking at 10:03 p.m. EDT on October 27, 2013. This image was captured by NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory.
Image Credit: NASA/SDO

On the astronomical flare scale, X-class outbursts represent the most intense. The number indicates the relative strength of the flare within its class. So, for example, an X2 is twice as intense as an X1, while an X3 is three times as intense, and so forth. Harmful radiation from a flare cannot pass through Earth’s atmosphere to harm humans on the ground.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Space Weather Prediction Center reported this past Friday that the current bout of flares has already caused some radio blackouts in the polar region.

Adding to the solar fireworks show, five giant coronal mass ejections (CMEs), outbursts of billions of tons of charged particles, have also erupted off the sun’s surface and into space. Each of these megablasts are many times the size of the Earth and travel at such high speeds that they can reach our planet within two to three days.

NASA’s space weather forecasts, which have been developed due in large part to observations by the sun-monitoring Solar Dynamic Observatory and the Solar and Heliospheric Observatory satellites, indicate that the five CMEs may possibly overlap with each other and merge into one massive cloud.

When such solar storms hit Earth’s protective, bubble-like magnetic field, they can cause geomagnetic storms, triggering anything from colorful auroral displays to knocked-out electrical grids.

The clouds of charged particles should arrive over the next 72 hours or so, according to spaceweather.com. However, they will be giving Earth only a glancing blow and NASA predicts that the effects will be mild. But the combined effect of a series of individual CMEs may trigger a bout of auroras to light up our skies between October 28 and 31.

We might have even more northern lights ahead of us. Forecasters predict that as we may be heading toward the peak of the solar cycle in the coming weeks and months, we should expect to see the more volatile side of the sun.

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Andrew Fazekas, aka The Night Sky Guy, is a science writer, broadcaster, and lecturer who loves to share his passion for the wonders of the universe through all media. He is a regular contributor to National Geographic News and is the national cosmic correspondent for Canada’s Weather Network TV channel, space columnist for CBC Radio network, and a consultant for the Canadian Space Agency. As a member of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada, Andrew has been observing the heavens from Montreal for over a quarter century and has never met a clear night sky he didn’t like.