As you read this, a huge cloud of charged solar particles is speeding toward our planet, a coronal mass ejection resulting from an X1.4-class flare that erupted from sunspot 1520 on July 12. The CME is expected to collide with Earth’s magnetic field just after 6 a.m. EDT Saturday, potentially affecting satellite operations and tripping alarms on power grids, as well as boosting auroral activity. (And this may not be the last we see from this sunspot, either.)
This animation, made from images taken by NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory, shows active region 1416 as it rotated into view over the past week, doubling in size as it approached the center of the Sun’s disk.
According to SpaceWeather.com’s Dr. Tony Phillips, AR1416 is magnetically charged in such a way as to be ready to release an M-class flare at any time. If this happens over the next couple of days, it will be aimed directly at Earth…
Hot off the presses, here’s a stunning full-disc solar photo by the inimitable Alan Friedman, taken on November 6, 2011 from his location in Buffalo, NY. Absolutely gorgeous!
The enormous sunspot region AR 1339 can be seen just right of the center of the Sun. It’s nearly 17 times wider than Earth!
Hydrogen alpha (Ha) is a specific wavelength of light (656.28nm) emitted by hydrogen atoms. By filtering for just this wavelength of light, details of the Sun’s photosphere can be made out whereas otherwise they’d be lost in the glare of our home star.
Image © Alan Friedman. All rights reserved.
Another fantastic image by Alan Friedman, this shows the massive sunspot region AR 1339 as it appeared on November 5, 2011 while in the process of rotating into view – and aim! – of Earth.
Estimated at about 17 times the width of Earth, AR 1339 contains some gigantic sunspots capable of producing high-powered solar flares. Already it has released a solar flare reaching X1.9 at 20:27 UTC on Nov. 3.
Should it keep up this level of activity we may be seeing more extreme aurorae in the coming week or two as was witnessed in October!
Image © Alan Friedman. All rights reserved.
‘Tis the season…the season for solar activity, that is! Last week was just the beginning, even though it saw some of the most powerful solar flares of the past four years send charged solar particles streaming toward Earth. Luckily our magnetosphere was in such a position to absorb much of it, creating some beautiful aurora for those stationed at points north. Some electromagnetic problems occurred around the globe but, for the most part, it wasn’t too disruptive considering the level of activity the Sun was exhibiting.
Once that particular sunspot region rotated away from direct line-of-sight with Earth we got a look at the next active regions, numbered 1161 and 1162, which sent out their own flares on the 18th and 19th. The animation above was made from SDO images taken with its AIA 131 camera, showing a flash of magnetic energy spreading out between the sunspots in the area. This spans about 40 minutes of actual time with the energy expanding a distance equal to about 20 Earths! Incredible.
These regions on the northern hemisphere of the Sun have since rotated past the direct line of sight with Earth as well, although since solar flares can send out particle clouds that curve and arc through space there is still a danger from M-class outbursts. And there’s another active region currently on the opposite side of the Sun, seen by NASA’s STEREO spacecraft, which is steadily moving into position…it will be facing Earth in about a week. Will that fizzle out or send more flares our way? No way to tell, but with all these eyes on our star we at least have some fair warning!
“We cannot tell if there is going to be a big storm six months from now, but we can tell when conditions are ripe for a storm to take place.”
– Juha-Pekka Luntama, European Space Agency
This is shaping up to be an interesting solar maximum, that’s for sure. Even if we’re lucky enough to avoid any real problems from flares we’ll certainly be getting some amazing views!
Image: NASA/SDO and the AIA, EVE and HMI science teams. Edited by J. Major.
Can’t see the video below? Click here.
Here’s a look at the activity on the Sun that’s gotten many talking about solar storms this week. Taken with the Solar Dynamics Observatory’s AIA 335 camera channel, which is sensitive to light emitted by Iron-14 ions in the Sun’s active corona layer, this video spans about two and a half days’ time, from February 13 to 15, 2011. Sunspot (or “active region”) 1158 is at the base of all those coronal loops you can see twisting and turning as the Sun rotates…in visible light they would appear as small dark spots on the Sun but in reality each node is easily as large as Earth!
These areas of magnetic instability have sent out several flares our way, visible here as bright flashes in SDO’s sensors. The last one, about halfway into the video, was classified as an X-category flare and was larger than any seen in the past four years. Since the Sun is just starting to enter the maximum activity period within its 11-year cycle (i.e., the Sun’s hurricane season) that makes sense, but we should expect to see more such flares over the next couple of years. Not all will be aimed at Earth, but when they are they can cause electromagnetic havoc with equipment on the ground – and in orbit – once the clouds of ejected charged particles make the 93-million-mile trip to collide with our magnetosphere.
“We’ve just witnessed the brightest flares seen for four years. This was a series of so-called X-class flares – the highest category on the solar flare ‘Richter scale’. The flares were near the center of the Sun which means associated eruptions and clouds of solar particles can travel in our direction.”
– Professor Richard Harrison, Solar physicist and Principal Investigator for STEREO
The flares shown here have already been responsible for radio and satellite outages in China. It remains to be seen if they will affect anywhere else, but one thing we can expect is increased auroral activity around the high latitudes and possibly much further south than normal. If you live in a dark area and fairly north, check the skies tonight for any pale reddish glow…it may be some low-flying northern lights! (The full “snow” moon won’t help viewing much, but you never know.)
As far as personal safety, these flares are nothing we haven’t experienced before, and are still weaker than ones we had in 2003. But it never hurts to put on some sunscreen.
Check out more info about the Sun’s activity and the recent flares on SpaceWeather.com.
Video credit: NASA/SDO and the AIA, EVE and HMI science teams.
Can’t see the video below? Click here.
Around 12:38 pm EST today, an energetic sunspot region on the Sun released a flare in our direction. The video above, a crop from an SDO AIA 171 mpeg, shows the shifting coronal loops surrounding sunspot 1158 as it rotates into view over the past day or so. The flare can be seen very briefly as a bright flash at the end of the video. The resulting coronal mass ejection (CME) was classified as an M6.6, which is a stronger medium-sized flare that has the potential to cause radio blackouts on Earth…in fact, the radio emissions were picked up and recorded – click here to listen!
The active region is now more than 100,000 km wide with at least a dozen Earth-sized dark cores scattered beneath its unstable magnetic canopy.
Sunspots are areas where the Sun’s internal magnetic fields “bubble up” and create cooler areas on the surface. Magnetic lines surround the depression carrying superheated solar plasma within them in arcing loops. Sometimes these loops lose stability and “snap”, releasing solar particles outwards into space at hundreds of thousands of miles per hour. If they are aimed at Earth we experience it as a “solar storm”, which has the potential to disrupt electronics and communications in orbit and on the ground. Only the most powerful solar storms can penetrate our magnetosphere to cause big problems, but they can create ionized particles in our atmosphere around the poles that glow brightly…a.k.a. the aurorae.
Read more about this event and other recently active areas on the Sun on spaceweather.com.
Video: SDO (NASA) and the AIA consortium.