[ Watch the Video: Our Sun Is Flaring Up ]
Lawrence LeBlond for redOrbit.com – Your Universe Online
Our sun, the bright yellow disk that sits at the center of the Solar System providing us with light, energy and warmth, has a much darker side that also has the potential to disrupt, rather than preserve, life on Earth.
Experts know that the sun goes through a natural solar cycle about every 11 years, marked by an increase and decrease of sunspots – visible blemishes that appear on the photosphere (surface) of the sun. As sunspots increase in intensity, the solar cycle is said to be approaching a “solar maximum,” with a “solar minimum” occurring when fewer sunspots actively appear.
These sunspots, which have been noticeably increasing over the past few years, points to a solar maximum that could now be upon our doorstep. With sunspots, also come other activity, such as solar flares and coronal mass ejections (CMEs). A CME is a solar phenomenon that can send billions of tons of radioactive particles into space that, when pointed in the right direction, can affect spacecraft, satellites and electronic systems on Earth. However, the radioactive particles associated with CMEs cannot pass through Earth’s atmosphere to affect humans. Scientists tracking solar flares and CMEs note that they are most often associated with sunspots.
Such is the case this past week as a flurry of activity has been on the rise on our neighboring star, giving potential signs that we are now in the midst of a solar maximum peak.
[ Watch the Video: Path of October 22-23 Coronal Mass Ejections ]
On October 23, 2013, the sun produced an M9.4 solar flare that peaked at 8:30 p.m. EDT. This M-class flare was at the upper limit of a scale that goes from M1 to M9.9. These are generally considered the weakest flares that have the ability to cause some space weather disturbances near Earth. In the past, they have been known to cause brief radio blackouts at the Poles. Flares that exceed the M-class rating are known as X-class flares and can produce intense flares that are more disruptive when geared toward Earth.
Wednesday’s solar flare was also associated with a coronal mass ejection (CME). Experimental NASA research models showed that this CME left the sun at 9:48 p.m. EDT and may catch up with two other CMEs that left the sun on October 22, 2013. These CMEs were expected to reach Earth within one to three days and were not expected to pose a serious threat to electrical systems.
Less than two days later, on October 25, 2013, two more solar flares erupted from the same region of the sun. The first, classified as an X1.7 solar flare, peaked at 4:03 a.m. EDT; the second X2.1 class flare peaked at 11:03 a.m. EDT. In the past, solar flares of this intensity have caused radio blackouts on Earth for about an hour.
As the sun approaches the solar maximum, solar flares of such intensity have been quite common. Humans have been tracking this type of activity continuously since the solar cycle was discovered back in 1843. Experts note that during the sun’s peak activity, it is normal for so many flares a day to occur. In the current solar cycle, several X-class solar flares have erupted on the sun. The first was observed in February 2011 and the largest occurred on August 9, 2011, when the sun produced an X6.9 solar flare.
Several X-class flares were also observed throughout 2012, but the most notable event occurred earlier this year.
On May 12, the sun produced its first X-class solar flare of 2013 with an X1.7 event. While not the most significant of solar flares, what was notable was the fact that two more X-class flares occurred within 24 hours. After the first X1.7 flare peaked at 10 p.m. EDT on May 12, it was followed by an X2.8 and an X3.2 solar flare, both occurring during the morning of May 13, 2013.
As for this past week’s events, the NOAA’s Space Weather Prediction Center (SWPC) reported that a geomagnetic storm may occur on October 28, 2013 as a result of the CMEs produced by this week’s solar flares.
The SWPC said on Saturday morning, “The recent spectacular eruptions from Region 1882 belie the fact that the geomagnetic field is to be unaffected, at least for the next few days. Forecasters expect impacts from the first of the CMEs in about 72 hours, but things can change given the volatile nature of the three active centers on the solar disk. Possible G1 (Minor) Geomagnetic Storm levels are forecast. Updates here as conditions unfold.”
As the sun has been increasing its solar activity, leaving us to wonder if the solar maximum is really upon us, one event may actually confirm that the sun is definitely on the verge of something big.
In late September, NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory (SDO), which constantly monitors the sun for any and all activity in a variety of wavelengths, captured what truly looks like a “canyon of fire” across the surface of the sun (see image below).
On Sept. 29-30, a magnetic filament of solar material erupted on the sun, leaving a 200,000-mile-long trail appearing in the sun’s corona. The event, which looked like a fiery canyon ripping open within the sun, was actually plasma erupting in the atmosphere due to a magnetic disturbance. NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center created a short video of the event, which lasted two days.
As the sun moves closer to its solar maximum peak, which has been predicted to be upon us, it is likely that solar flares and CMEs will increase in volume in the coming weeks and perhaps months. However, as has happened in past solar cycles, the experts could be off on their calculations and the solar maximum could still be far from peaking.
(LEFT): NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory or SDO, captured this image on the sun of an M9.4-class solar flare, which peaked at 8:30 pm EDT on Oct. 23, 2013. The image displays light in the wavelength of 131 Angstroms, which is good for viewing the intense heat of a solar flare and typically colored teal. Credit: NASA/SDO
(RIGHT): A magnetic filament of solar material erupted on the sun in late September, breaking the quiet conditions in a spectacular fashion. The 200,000 mile long filament ripped through the sun’s atmosphere, the corona, leaving behind what looks like a canyon of fire. Credit: NASA/SDO
[ Watch the Video: Our Sun Is Flaring Up ]