Space & Innovation

Sun Erupts With Biggest Solar Flares of 2016

The double flare event on Saturday unleashed a coronal mass ejection that could side-swipe Earth, boosting space weather effects.

Though the sun is currently in an activity lull, it certainly isn't sleeping. Early on Saturday, it erupted with a solar flare one-two punch, both magnetic explosions ranking as the most powerful observed on the sun for 2016.

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The first flare kicked off at 0211 UT (10:11 p.m., Friday, EST), registering as an M5-class flare and then, only 3 hours later, a second flare was triggered, reaching a peak of a M7.6, making this the most energetic flare of the year so far.

Solar flares are ranked on a logarithmic scale, much in the same way as earthquakes are measured using the Richter Scale. "M-class" flares are considered "medium" flares, with the most powerful flares categorized as "X-class" flares. Though these two latest explosions weren't the most powerful flares our sun can muster, they can still have an impact on Earth.

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The radiation generated by flares such as these cause waves of ionization to ripple through the upper atmosphere (in a region known as the ionosphere). When this happens, shortwave radio transmissions around the planet can be affected and sometimes completely blocked. The NOAA routinely monitors these space weather events and issues maps of the regions and frequencies affected. Air traffic communications can be impacted, as can mariners and ham radio operators may have noticed a weakening in radio signals.

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The solar flare pair originated in a highly magnetized region known as an active region (AR). In this case, the AR2565-AR2567 sunspot complex was to blame. Powerful magnetic fields are extremely dense in this region, which is currently rotating over the sun's limb and out of view. But when the flares were triggered, beautiful arcs of superheated solar plasma could be seen reaching into the lower corona (the sun's multi-million degree atmosphere).

This intense environment was ripe for solar flares and, when the conditions were just right, magnetic reconnection occurred, causing a rapid magnetic reorganization that accelerated and heated the sun's plasma, generating intense radiation.

Followup observations also tracked a significant coronal mass ejection (or CME) race away from the blast site, taking a bubble of magnetism and hot gas with it (as shown in the animation above). Though the CME itself is not expected to hit Earth, shock waves from the CME can impact the flow of the solar wind -- a steady stream of ionized particles from the sun -- potentially causing a minor geomagnetic storm, according to Spaceweather.com. The stream of solar wind particles from this shock are expected to reach Earth orbit on Tuesday (July 26).

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By carefully monitoring the sun's lower corona and tracking events such as solar flares and CMEs, alerts can be sent out should damaging space weather conditions be predicted. Much like tracking a hurricane on Earth, tracking the progress of space weather can help prevent damage when the storm makes landfall (or "Earthfall"). High energy particles in CMEs and the solar wind can impact satellites and even have effects down here on Earth. For more on this topic, check out my recent DNews video.