Watch: Sun Unleashes First Big Flare of 2014, May Create Colorful Aurora Light Show

A giant solar flare erupted on the sun on January 7, seen here by NASA’s solar monitoring satellite. Credit: NASA/Solar Dynamic Observatory

The new year has started off with a bang, with a powerful solar flare being hurled off the surface of the sun on Tuesday.

NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory and STEREO spacecrafts managed to capture the eruption of a massive X-class flare—the largest type on the Richter scale of solar explosions—as it occurred above a group of sunspots directly facing Earth.

This Jan. 7th coronagraph movie from NASA's SOHO spacecraft shows the giant CME - cloud of charged particles being hurled off the sun and into space.  Credit: Solar and Heliospheric Observatory (SOHO)
This January 7 coronagraph movie from NASA’s SOHO spacecraft shows the giant cloud of charged particles being hurled off the sun into space. Also visible as “snow” are high-energy protons associated with the solar blast hitting the sensors as they fly by the probe. Credit: Solar and Heliospheric Observatory (SOHO)

The sunspot group that is the source of the fireworks is called AR1944 and is considered one of the largest sunspot groups seen in the past decade.

“The sprawling active region is more than 200,000 km wide and contains dozens of dark cores. Its primary core, all by itself, is large enough to swallow Earth three times over,” according to the spaceweather.com website.

Target Earth?

The solar explosion above the sunspot, which happened Tuesday at approximately 18: 32 GMT (1:32 pm EST), appears to have hurled a giant cloud of charged particles known as a coronal mass ejection (CME) directly toward Earth.

Sky-watchers in both high and mid latitudes around the world may see some colorful sky shows in the form of auroras or northern lights starting in the mid-morning hours GMT (very early morning hours EST) on January 9, when the cloud is expected to slam into our planet’s magnetic field.

NOAA’s Space Weather Prediction Center says there is an estimated 60 percent chance of a strong geomagnetic storm hitting Earth in the coming days. So keep looking up.

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Changing Planet

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.