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Sun unleashes at least eight solar flares towards Earth

At least eight solar flares have been unleashed towards Earth – and more could follow – after a crackling sunspot emerged on the solar surface this week.

Our star has been experiencing heightened activity in 2022, having fired off its most powerful solar flare for five years back in April.

It appears to be moving into a particularly active period of its 11-year cycle of activity, which began in 2019 and is expected to peak in 2025.

One of the latest solar flares caused a brief radio blackout over the Atlantic Ocean when it struck Earth at 14:42 GMT (09:42 ET) yesterday (Wednesday), according to SpaceWeather.com.

Solar burps: At least eight solar flares have been unleashed towards Earth – and more could follow – after a crackling sunspot emerged on the solar surface this week. NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory spacecraft captured this shot of a solar flare erupting yesterday

WHAT ARE CORONAL MASS EJECTIONS?

Coronal mass ejections (CMEs) are large clouds of plasma and magnetic field that erupt from the sun. 

These clouds can erupt in any direction, and then continue on in that direction, plowing through solar wind. 

These clouds only cause impacts to Earth when they’re aimed at Earth. 

They tend to be much slower than solar flares, as they move a greater amount of matter. 

CMEs can be triggered when a storm on the surface of the sun causes a whirlwind to form at the base of plasma loops that project from the surface. 

These loops are called prominences and when they become unstable they can break, releasing the CME into space.

Solar flares – bursts of electromagnetic radiation that travel at the speed of light – normally reach our planet within eight minutes of emerging from the sun’s atmosphere.

The most powerful category are X flares, followed by M class ones, which is what most of the new ones were.

Such was the excitement of Wednesday’s activity that some experts took to Twitter. 

‘THREE MORE M FLARES: An M6, M3 and M2 all from AR3165,’ said solar physicist Keith Strong. 

‘That makes 8 M flares so far today. They seem to be getting bigger, is an X flare in the offing? Stay tuned.’

The AR3165 that Mr Strong tweeted about is a sunspot – a dark region of the sun where it is cooler than other parts of the surface – that recently emerged on our star’s visible disk.

Solar flares originate close to these dark areas of the star, releasing energy. 

They are sometimes associated with coronal mass ejections (CMEs), which tend to cause more disruption to technology on Earth, but so far there’s no evidence this new activity includes any CMEs.

These mass ejections tend to be much slower than solar flares, as they move a greater amount of matter, but they only have an impact on our planet when they’re aimed in its direction.

CMEs can be triggered when a storm on the surface of the sun causes a whirlwind to form at the base of plasma loops that project from the surface. 

These loops are called prominences and when they become unstable they can break, releasing the CME into space. 

Flares and CMEs have different effects at Earth as well. The energy from a flare can disrupt the area of the atmosphere through which radio waves travel, which can lead to temporary blackouts in navigation and communications signals.

On the other hand, CMEs have the power to jostle Earth’s magnetic fields, creating currents that drive particles down toward Earth’s poles.

When these react with oxygen and nitrogen, they help create the aurora, also known as the Northern and Southern Lights.

One of the latest solar flares caused a brief radio blackout over the Atlantic Ocean when it struck Earth at 14:42 GMT (09:42 ET) yesterday (Wednesday), according to SpaceWeather.com

One of the latest solar flares caused a brief radio blackout over the Atlantic Ocean when it struck Earth at 14:42 GMT (09:42 ET) yesterday (Wednesday), according to SpaceWeather.com 

AR3165 is a sunspot – a dark region of the sun where it is cooler than other parts of the surface – that recently emerged on our star's visible disk. Solar flares originate close to these dark areas of the star, releasing energy

AR3165 is a sunspot – a dark region of the sun where it is cooler than other parts of the surface – that recently emerged on our star’s visible disk. Solar flares originate close to these dark areas of the star, releasing energy

Solar flares – bursts of electromagnetic radiation that travel at the speed of light – normally reach our planet within eight minutes of emerging from the sun's atmosphere. Pictured is an image taken by the Solar Orbiter probe

Solar flares – bursts of electromagnetic radiation that travel at the speed of light – normally reach our planet within eight minutes of emerging from the sun’s atmosphere. Pictured is an image taken by the Solar Orbiter probe

Additionally, the magnetic changes can affect a variety of human technologies, causing GPS coordinates to stray by a few yards and overloading electricity grids when power companies are not prepared.

There hasn’t been an extreme CME or solar flare in the modern world – the last was the Carrington Event in 1859 – creating a geomagnetic storm with an aurora appearing globally, as well as fires at telegraph stations. 

April’s flare – the strongest in this solar cycle – did not do any damage to Earth, nor did it affect our satellites and the power grid.

But scientists are concerned that the sun’s increased activity could lead to potentially dangerous solar weather which may damage electrical grids, knock out satellites, and harm astronauts and space equipment on the International Space Station.

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SOLAR STORMS PRESENT A CLEAR DANGER TO ASTRONAUTS AND CAN DAMAGE SATELLITES

Solar storms, or solar activity, can be divided into four main components that can have impacts on Earth:  

  • Solar flares: A large explosion in the sun’s atmosphere. These flares are made of photons that travel out directly from the flare site. Solar flares impact Earth only when they occur on the side of the sun facing Earth.  
  • Coronal Mass Ejections (CME’s): Large clouds of plasma and magnetic field that erupt from the sun. These clouds can erupt in any direction, and then continue on in that direction, plowing through solar wind. These clouds only cause impacts to Earth when they’re aimed at Earth. 
  • High-speed solar wind streams: These come from coronal holes on the sun, which form anywhere on the sun and usually only when they are closer to the solar equator do the winds impact Earth. 
  • Solar energetic particles: High-energy charged particles thought to be released primarily by shocks formed at the front of coronal mass ejections and solar flares. When a CME cloud plows through solar wind, solar energetic particles can be produced and because they are charged, they follow the magnetic field lines between the Sun and Earth. Only charged particles that follow magnetic field lines that intersect Earth will have an impact. 

While these may seem dangerous, astronauts are not in immediate danger of these phenomena because of the relatively low orbit of manned missions.

However, they do have to be concerned about cumulative exposure during space walks.

This photo shows the sun's coronal holes in an x-ray image. The outer solar atmosphere, the corona, is structured by strong magnetic fields, which when closed can cause the atmosphere to suddenly and violently release bubbles of gas and magnetic fields called coronal mass ejections

This photo shows the sun’s coronal holes in an x-ray image. The outer solar atmosphere, the corona, is structured by strong magnetic fields, which when closed can cause the atmosphere to suddenly and violently release bubbles or tongues of gas and magnetic fields called coronal mass ejections

The damage caused by solar storms 

Solar flares can damage satellites and have an enormous financial cost.

The charged particles can also threaten airlines by disturbing Earth’s magnetic field.

Very large flares can even create currents within electricity grids and knock out energy supplies.

When Coronal Mass Ejections strike Earth they cause geomagnetic storms and enhanced aurora.

They can disrupt radio waves, GPS coordinates and overload electrical systems.

A large influx of energy could flow into high voltage power grids and permanently damage transformers.

This could shut off businesses and homes around the world. 

Source: NASA – Solar Storm and Space Weather 

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