solar flare March 29
May 8, 2014

Best-Ever Solar Flare Observations Captured By Multiple NASA Spacecraft

[ Watch the Video: The Best Observed X-Class Flare ]

redOrbit Staff & Wire Reports - Your Universe Online

An X-class solar flare that erupted on March 29 was observed by four different spacecraft and one ground-based observatory, making it the best viewed phenomenon of its kind, NASA officials announced on Wednesday.

The intense flare, which originated from the right side of the sun, was detected and monitored by the Interface Region Imaging Spectrograph (IRIS), the Solar Dynamics Observatory (SDO), the Reuven Ramaty High Energy Solar Spectroscopic Imager (RHESSI), the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency’s Hinode, and the New Mexico-based National Solar Observatory’s Dunn Solar Telescope, according to the US space agency.

In addition, several other spacecraft were able to collect data about what was taking place on the sun during the solar flare, as well as how it impacted Earth. Among them were the NASA's Solar Terrestrial Relations Observatory and the joint European Space Agency and NASA's Solar and Heliospheric Observatory, which monitored the coronal mass ejection (the cloud of solar material which erupted off the sun along with the flare), and the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration GOES satellite, which tracked X-rays that were given off by the flare.

According to NASA, researchers should be able to use the information collected during the flare in order to better understand what catalysts are responsible for causing these large solar explosions. The observations could even make it possible to one day predict when they might take place, and issue warnings about the radio blackouts that can result from these events and interfere with ship, airplane and military communications.

“This is the most comprehensive data set ever collected by NASA's Heliophysics Systems Observatory,” said Jonathan Cirtain, project scientist for Hinode at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Alabama. “Some of the spacecraft observe the whole sun all the time, but three of the observatories had coordinated in advance to focus on a specific active region of the sun. We need at least a day to program in observation time and the target – so it was extremely fortunate that we caught this X-class flare.”

The March solar flare also had the honor of being the first X-class one ever to be observed by IRIS. IRIS was launched in June 2013 to closely analyze the chromosphere and transition region, or the part of the sun that all of a flare’s heat and energy must travel through during its formation. This area is collectively known as the interface region, and it had been difficult for scientists to study it closely prior to IRIS’s observations of the March 29 flare.

“Coordinated observations are crucial to understanding such eruptions on the sun and their effects on space weather near Earth,” NASA said in a statement. “Where terrestrial weather watching involves thousands of sensors and innumerable thermometers, solar observations still rely on a mere handful of telescopes.”

“The instruments on the observatories are planned so that each shows a different aspect of the flare at a different heights off the sun's surface and at different temperatures. Together the observatories can paint a three-dimensional picture of what happens during any given event on the sun,” the US space agency added.

The observations were due largely to the efforts of Lucia Kleint, principal investigator of a NASA-funded grant at the Bay Area Environmental Research Institute to coordinate ground-based and space-based flare observations, and her colleagues. While looking for solar flares during a 10 day observation cycle with the Dunn Solar Telescope, her team joined forces with the IRIS and Hinode teams a day before the flare so that they could all monitor the same active region of the sun at the same time.

“Active regions are often the source of solar eruptions, and this one was showing intense magnetic fields that moved in opposite directions in close proximity – a possible harbinger of a flare. However, researchers do not yet know exactly what conditions will lead to a flare so this was a best guess, not a guarantee,” NASA said. “But the guess paid off. In the space of just a few minutes, the most comprehensive flare data set of all time had been collected.”