Sun Slings Largest Solar Flare Yet: Coronal Mass Ejection Hurtles to Earth
The sun has let loose its strongest flare yet today. Classified as a M6.5 flare, it was associated with an Earth-direction coronal mass ejection (CME), a solar phenomenon that can send billions of tons of solar particles into space and can reach our planet days later.
Solar flares are powerful bursts of radiation that can sling the harmful material through space toward Earth. Fortunately, this radiation cannot pass through our atmosphere to impact humans on the ground. However, it can sometimes disturb the atmosphere enough so that it disrupts radio signals.
This particular mid-level flare occurred at about 3:16 a.m. EDT. Ten times less powerful than the strongest flares, which are labeled X-class flares, it still caused a R2 radio blackout that has since subsided (blackouts are categorized between R1 and R5 on NOAA's space weather scales).
Sometimes when a solar flare occurs, it causes a CME. It's this phenomenon, in particular, that has scientists more worried. The solar flare that occurred today also produced a CME which shot from the sun at over 600 miles per second. It could potentially create a weather phenomenon called a geomagnetic storm, which occurs when it connects with the outside of Earth's magnetic envelope for an extended period of time. This CME could potentially affect electronic systems in satellites and on the ground.
This is the strongest flare seen so far in 2013--and it's likely not the last that our planet will see this year. The sun's normal 11-year activity cycle is coming to its peak, which is expected in late 2013.
There are some perks to the increased solar activity, though. It's been associated with some pretty spectacular views of the Aurora Borealis.
Until this cycle begins to wane, though, solar activity is likely to increase; this means more solar flares and more CMEs.