Monster Sunspot Threatens Earth With Solar Storms

Here is composite image of the Sun taken October 22, 2014 in three wavelengths of light combined from NASA's SDO sun-monitoring satellite. Sunspot group AR2192 is beneath the very bright area in the lower center potion of the sun, which is highlighted by  the X1.6-class solar flare in progress.  Credit: NASA Solar Dynamics Observatory
A composite image of the sun taken October 22, 2014, shows the sunspot group AR 2192 (just below center),  lit by an X1.6-class solar flare. Courtesy of NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory

The solar eclipse may steal the week’s heavenly headlines, but a monster sunspot—the likes of which hasn’t been seen for years—has turned toward Earth and may spew some serious solar storms.

From the moment the gigantic sunspot cluster known as AR 2192 appeared on the eastern side of the sun on October 17, NASA solar scientists knew it was going to be a whopper. As it has rotated into view over the past few days, it has grown larger and is now the size of the planet Jupiter—around 87,000 miles (140,000 kilometers) across.

This makes it the largest sunspot observed in the current solar cycle, which began in January 2008.

The sunspot is so large that skywatchers holding protective filters up to their eyes have seen it on the face of the sun. Photographers using telephoto lenses have also snapped the freckled setting sun.

A word of warning: Never to look at the sun with the unaided eye, as that could damage your vision. The same holds true when using a camera. Use the LCD screen only to frame the shot—never look through the viewfinder at the sun.

The space agency’s solar satellites have continuously tracked the titanic disturbance. Its outbursts have included 27 low-grade, or C-class, solar flares; 8 medium, or M-class, flares; and 2 extreme, or X-class flares—the strongest on the “Richter scale” of flares.

So far, none of the flares have generated any significant solar storms, but scientists say that if any X-class flares pop up in the coming days, a giant cloud of charged particles known as a coronal mass ejection might head for Earth.

The SDO satellite on October 20, 2014 gives a closer look at Active Region AR2192 before it rotated toward Earth. Courtesy of NASA/SDO

Such an outburst could trigger a geomagnetic storm, which could cause communications and power-grid problems. With any luck, it would merely produce some beautiful displays of northern lights.

So what are the chances that Earth will be struck by a powerful solar blast this week?

Unclear. Space weather forecasting is still in its infancy. But we’re under a major solar flare watch, and all eyes are on this menacing beast.

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Changing Planet

Meet the Author
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.