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The Sun erupts with its most powerful solar flare in 7 YEARS – as experts warn the enormous explosion could wreak havoc on GPS and satellites


It looks like a flash of bright light in the reflection of a car window. 

But a stunning new image from NASA actually shows a massive solar flare – a powerful explosion in the sun’s atmosphere. 

The dramatic event occurred at 22:34 GMT (17:34 EST) on Thursday and was captured by NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory, which watches the sun constantly. 

Experts say the resulting radiation directed at Earth could impact power grids and navigation signals, or pose risks to spacecraft and astronauts, although it could also cause beautiful auroras in the sky

It’s the most powerful solar flare for seven years, since a flurry in September 2017 caused radio blackouts for hours. 

NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory captured this image of a solar flare (as seen in the bright flash in the upper left) on February 22, 2024. The image shows a subset of extreme ultraviolet light that highlights the extremely hot material in flares and which is colorized in bronze

NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory captured this image of a solar flare (as seen in the bright flash in the upper left) on February 22, 2024. The image shows a subset of extreme ultraviolet light that highlights the extremely hot material in flares and which is colorized in bronze

What are solar flares? 

A solar flare is a tremendous explosion on the sun that happens when energy stored in ‘twisted’ magnetic fields is suddenly released. 

In mere minutes they heat material to many millions of degrees and produce a burst of radiation across the electromagnetic spectrum, from radio waves to X-rays and gamma rays. 

It’s different from a coronal mass ejection (CME), which flings out solar material in the form of huge bubbles of charged particles (plasma) threaded with magnetic field lines. 

Source: ESA 

As NASA explains, solar flares are ‘powerful bursts’ of high-energy radiation from the sun’s surface that can cause disturbances on Earth. 

‘Flares and solar eruptions can impact radio communications, electric power grids, navigation signals, and pose risks to spacecraft and astronauts,’ the agency says. 

Generally, experts describe the strength of solar flares by giving them a letter (from A, B, C, M, and X) followed by a number (from 1 to 9). 

This new flare is classified as an X flare, meaning it is the biggest type that can trigger radio blackouts around the whole world and long-lasting radiation storms in the upper atmosphere. 

This one is X6.3, not quite as large as the flurry of massive solar flares in September 2017, which included an X9.3 and an X8.2. 

A study in the journal Space Weather later concluded that the 2017 flares damaged radio communications during hurricane response efforts in the Caribbean.  

This week’s X6.3 solar flare is also the largest of three that have occurred since Wednesday, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). 

The X6.3 solar flare is also the largest of three that have occurred since Wednesday, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). The new NASA's image also reveals a dark 'coronal hole' on the sun further south, which appears as a big dark patch

The X6.3 solar flare is also the largest of three that have occurred since Wednesday, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). The new NASA’s image also reveals a dark ‘coronal hole’ on the sun further south, which appears as a big dark patch

NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory captured these images of a solar flare – as seen in the bright flashes in the upper left area of the Sun – on February 21 and 22. The images show a subset of extreme ultraviolet light that highlights the extremely hot material in flares and which is colorized in teal 

The other two were X1.8 and X1.7 – so while they were also X-class flares they weren’t quite as powerful. 

It’s unclear what damage they have caused, if any; MailOnline has contacted NASA for more. 

According to Royal Museums Greenwich, it typically takes two days after the flare is seen on the Sun for the particles to reach Earth. 

Upon their arrival, these particles can result in an aurora – a spectacular flash of vibrant coloured lights in the sky viewable near the Earth’s poles. 

Met Office expects the aurora to be viewable non Sunday in the far north of Scotland and similar geomagnetic latitudes ‘under favorable viewing conditions’ – i.e. free of cloud and light pollution. 

Solar flares are different from coronal mass ejections (CMEs), which fling out solar material in the form of huge bubbles of charged particles (plasma) threaded with magnetic field lines.

But both can be responsible for the aurora, also known as the Northern Lights or ‘aurora borealis’ in the northern hemisphere and the Southern Lights or ‘aurora australis’ in the southern hemisphere. 

The new NASA’s image also reveals a dark ‘coronal hole’ on the sun further south, which appears as a big dark patch. 

Coronal holes – a common occurrence on the sun – are areas of open magnetic field from which high speed solar wind rushes out into space.

They also cause auroras and disruptions to Earth’s communication systems.   

Sunday: A Met Office animation shows the auroral oval - the ring-like range of auroral activity that determines the range of the Northern Lights and where it will be most visible

Sunday: A Met Office animation shows the auroral oval – the ring-like range of auroral activity that determines the range of the Northern Lights and where it will be most visible

The Northern Lights seen above St Leonard's Head in St Andrews, Scotland, February 27, 2023

The Northern Lights seen above St Leonard’s Head in St Andrews, Scotland, February 27, 2023

A solar flare is a tremendous explosion on the sun that happens when energy stored in 'twisted' magnetic fields is suddenly released (file photo)

A solar flare is a tremendous explosion on the sun that happens when energy stored in ‘twisted’ magnetic fields is suddenly released (file photo)

NOAA also said the X6.3 solar flare is the largest to have taken place so far during the current solar cycle. 

The solar cycle is the cycle that the sun’s magnetic field goes through about every 11 years, before it completely flips and the sun’s north and south poles switch places. 

The current solar cycle, numbered 25, started in 2019 and is expected to continue until about 2030. 

As the sun’s magnetic fields change, so does the amount of activity on our star’s surface, according to NASA. 

Although the sun’s otherwise violent surface takes on a calmer and almost idyllic appearance during solar minimum, this faux calm can also lead to disturbances on the sun known as solar storms. 

Solar storms during this solar minimum still occur due to the occurrence of solar flares – explosions on the sun when energy stored in ‘twisted’ magnetic fields is released. 

The solar minimum is also when the sun has the fewest ‘sunspots’ – cooler parts of the sun’s surface caused by massive changes in its magnetic field.

But over time, solar activity and the number of sunspots increases as it approaches the solar maximum. 

WHAT IS THE SOLAR CYCLE?

The Sun is a huge ball of electrically-charged hot gas that moves, generating a powerful magnetic field.

This magnetic field goes through a cycle, called the solar cycle.

Every 11 years or so, the Sun’s magnetic field completely flips, meaning the sun’s north and south poles switch places. 

The solar cycle affects activity on the surface of the Sun, such as sunspots which are caused by the Sun’s magnetic fields. 

Every 11 years the Sun's magnetic field flips, meaning the Sun's north and south poles switch places. The solar cycle affects activity on the surface of the Sun, increasing the number of sunspots during stronger (2001) phases than weaker (1996/2006) ones

Every 11 years the Sun’s magnetic field flips, meaning the Sun’s north and south poles switch places. The solar cycle affects activity on the surface of the Sun, increasing the number of sunspots during stronger (2001) phases than weaker (1996/2006) ones

One way to track the solar cycle is by counting the number of sunspots.

The beginning of a solar cycle is a solar minimum, or when the Sun has the least sunspots. Over time, solar activity – and the number of sunspots – increases.

The middle of the solar cycle is the solar maximum, or when the Sun has the most sunspots.

As the cycle ends, it fades back to the solar minimum and then a new cycle begins.

Giant eruptions on the Sun, such as solar flares and coronal mass ejections, also increase during the solar cycle.

These eruptions send powerful bursts of energy and material into space that can have effects on Earth.

For example, eruptions can cause lights in the sky, called aurora, or impact radio communications and electricity grids on Earth. 



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