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Scientists Watching Closely As Solar Flare Approaches Earth

The largest solar flare in four years erupted Monday, and its radiation is expected to reach Earth tonight, according to National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). The impact could interfere with communication systems, power grids and navigation satellites.

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Aired 2/17/11

The largest solar flare in four years erupted Monday, and its radiation is expected to reach Earth tonight. The impact could interfere with communication systems, power grids and navigation satellites.

Erupting from active region AR1158 in the sun's southern hemisphere, the flare was captured in extreme ultraviolet image by Nasa's Solar Dynamics Observatory (SDO). The intense burst of electromagnetic radiation above a 60,000 mile-wide dark sunspot momentarily overwhelmed pixels in SDO's detectors, causing the bright vertical blemish.
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Above: Erupting from active region AR1158 in the sun's southern hemisphere, the flare was captured in extreme ultraviolet image by Nasa's Solar Dynamics Observatory (SDO). The intense burst of electromagnetic radiation above a 60,000 mile-wide dark sunspot momentarily overwhelmed pixels in SDO's detectors, causing the bright vertical blemish.

Solar flares are caused by the sudden release of magnetic energy stored in the sun's atmosphere. NOAA officials said three eruptions happened Monday and the plasma from the flare is expected to reach the earth’s magnetic field tonight.

The largest of the three, classified as an X-class flare, is the most powerful form of solar flare and has scientists around the world watching closely, including Bernard Jackson, a research scientist at UCSD's Center for Astrophysics and Space Science.

"The flare could cause significant changes in the earth’s magnetic field," said Jackson.

Solar flares cause charged particles to get deposited into the earth’s atmosphere, which can cause communications blackouts, Jackson explained.

"It also means particles come down form space into the earth’s atmosphere. So if you’re flying in an airplane -- really high flying, anyway -- you worry about being eradiated by the particles that come down, especially over the polar regions," Jackson said.

Researchers say the sun is awakening after a period of several years of inactivity. The sun typically goes through an 11-year cycle of activity. At its peak, it's covered with dozens of sun spots that can unleash solar flares from the sun’s magnetic energy. According to NOAA, until recently, the sun has been in its least active period in decades and the dimmest in 100 years.

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