I can remember at the beginning of this solar cycle everyone was complaining about the lack of activity. Well, there is activity in spades right at the moment.
The number of solar flares and sunspots increase and decrease approximately every 11 years (one solar cycle). The Sun is currently moving towards solar maximum sometime in 2013.
There have been three Coronal Mass Ejections (CMEs) and solar flares in the last 24 hours (as I am writing this, there could be more coming). Solar flares are giant explosions on the Sun that send energy, light and high speed particles into space. These flares are often associated with CMEs, but they can occur alone.
The biggest flares are known as “X-class flares” based on a classification system that divides solar flares according to their strength. The smallest ones are A-class (near background levels), followed by B, C, M and X. Like the Richter scale for earthquakes, each letter represents an exponential 10-fold increase in energy output (an X is 10 times an M and 100 times a C and 1000 times an A). There is also a 1-9 scale inside each class, so the latest flare was a X3.2.
But X-class are the last letter, the number for X flares isn’t limited to 9. The largest X-class flare ever recorded was an X28 in November or 2003 (I don’t think I want to be around for an X99, that would really be the big one).
When solar flares and CMEs head in Earth’s direction, the can ionize the atmosphere and can harm satellites, communications systems and interfere with ground-based technologies and power grids. As I wrote earlier, even airplanes are redirected or grounded to avoid the radiation associated with flares and CMEs.
The CME from the latest X-flare left the sun at approximately 1,400 miles per second. NASA predicts that this flare and CME will catch up to the other two CMEs associated with the earlier flares merging into on giant cloud of solar material. The cloud is headed toward the Spitzer spacecraft and close to the STEREO-B and Epoxi spacecraft. NASA has already informed mission operators so that they can put spacecraft into safe mode for protection.
Dang it, I was going to try and catch a little solar magic with my solar scope, but I had an event yesterday that prevented me from getting any images.
P.S. NEVER, NEVER, NEVER, NEVER, NEVER, NEVER, NEVER, NEVER, NEVER, NEVER LOOK AT THE SUN WITHOUT PROPER PROTECTION!
Did I mention that you shouldn’t look at the sun WITHOUT PROPER PROTECTION?
– Ex astris, scientia –
I am and avid amateur astronomer and intellectual property attorney in Pasadena, California. As a former Chief Petty Officer in the U.S. Navy, I am a proud member of the Armed Service Committee of the Los Angeles County Bar Association working to aid all active duty and veterans in our communities. Connect with me on Google +