NASA Warns of Solar Flares after Fast-Growing Sunspots Appear (Video)

First Posted: Feb 21, 2013 01:26 PM EST

Two black dots on the sun, known as sunspots, began to rapidly form over the course of a mere 48 hours. Now, the organization has warned that the two sunspots, which are both part of a massive system, could trigger solar flares this week.

Large enough to swallow six Earths whole, the system was captured from NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory. The image that the organization release is, in fact, several images combined from the Helioseismic and Magnetic Imager (HMI) and the Advanced Imaging Assembly (AIA), which are both part of the observatory. While the HMI shoots pictures in visible light to reveal the sunspots, the AIA takes pictures that reveal the lower atmosphere of the sun.

Sunspots themselves are formed when magnetic fields on the sun rearrange and realign, and are actually cooler than the surrounding solar material--as much as 2,000 K less. Most sunspots don't appear in random locations, and are actually concentrated in two mid-latitude bands on either side of the equator of the sun. In this case, the spot quickly evolved into a delta region, where the lighter areas around the sunspot (penumbra) exhibit intense magnetic fields that point in the opposite direction of the fields in the center; this makes the phenomenon ripe for solar activity, including solar flares.

Solar flares can occur when twisted magnetic lines cross and reconnect, causing energy to explode outward with a force that can exceed that of millions of hydrogen bombs. These flares can potentially affect radio communications on Earth's surface, and can even slow the orbit of satellites and bring them back to our planet sooner than intended. Most of the particles associated with these flares, though, are absorbed by our atmosphere.

Yet this phenomenon isn't so surprising. The sun is currently reaching the end of its 11 year cycle, which means that the sun is will reach its peak activity in 2013.

Want to see a solar flare? Check out the video below, where NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory witnessed a medium sized flare accompanied by a enormous magnetic loop of superheated plasma emanating from the surface. The video originally appeared here, courtesy of NASA/SDO.

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