Solar Astronomy

The Sun Gets Feisty, Throwing Off Three X-Class Flares Within 24 Hours

The Sun is heading toward solar maximum (which is likely to be about a year away) and as it does, there will be more sunspots, solar flares and coronal mass ejections. Over the last 24 hours there has been three, yes three X-class flares, the first peaking at X1.9, the second 1.7 and the final one a mighty 6.3. Flares of this magnitude caused radio blackouts, disruption to mobile phones and radio transmissions.  

The solar cycle is an 11 year recurring pattern of activity that is driven by the Sun’s magnetic field. The cycle begins with solar minimum with low levels of sunspot activity focussed mostly around the polar regions. This is followed by solar maximum with the increased sunspot activity that has migrated toward the lower latitudes. The cycle drives space weather too which is an outflow of charged particles from the Sun. Any increase or outbursts there can be an impact on satellites, radio communications and even the climate. 

Sunspots captured by NASAs Solar Dynamic Observatory

Among the different manifestations of solar activity, some of the most powerful are the solar flares. They vary in size and intensity and are caused by a sudden release of magnetic energy. They are powerful emitters of ultraviolet and X-ray radiation and can produce particles energetic enough to be hazardous to astronauts, spacecraft and their systems. Teams of scientists study solar flares to help understand their nature and behaviour. Doing so may help to find ways to limit their impact on our technology and space exploration. The most powerful of the flares are the X-class flares. 

These X-class flares are classified according to their peak X-ray levels within the 1 to 8 Angstroms (1 angstrom = 10-10 metres). The scale used typically spans from X1-X9 with each letter depicting a tenfold rise in intensity.  An X2 flare for example is twice as intense as an X1 flare and an X3 flare, ten times stronger than X2 and so it goes on. On rare occasions, flares can exceed X10 but this is a rare event indeed. 

Sunspot region 3590, which is at a relatively high solar latitude, has generated to X-class events. The initial flare reached its peak at X1.9 followed a few hours later by an X1.7 flare. Both of these flares resulted in a brief radio blackout on the day time side of Earth. 

It seems that just like busses, solar flares are few and far between then three come along all at once (this may be a UK joke so apologies to those based elsewhere). The very same sunspot region 3590 has not let us down as it has done it again. This time, it peaked at an impressive X6.3. It is also possible that there is a coronal mass ejection related to this flare but we won’t know for a day or two yet. Whilst the solar maximum may be only a year away, it seems the Sun has plenty of poke left in it and we may well be in for quite a year. 

Source : Two X-class solar flares only 7 hours apart and X6.3 Solar Flare

Mark Thompson

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