July 3, 2022

Solar Flare Erupts, Causes Breathtaking Outer Space Picture

A solar flare is a burst of radiation coming from the release of magnetic energy associated with sunspots. This radiation is typically observed at wavelengths near 1 millimeter, which are blocked by Earth’s atmosphere. Therefore scientists have to be creative in their efforts to observe these events from the ground while they are occurring. Some research groups use radar while others look for the signature among bright red emission light emitted by excited hydrogen atoms in a layer of the upper atmosphere called the hydrogen alpha line or Lyman-alpha line, to name just two techniques. There are many more methods used around the world and data collected can be combined like puzzle pieces to develop an understanding of this complex phenomenon.

NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory (SDO) is a solar mission that launched in February 2010. The spacecraft’s highly sensitive instruments provide images of the Sun at several wavelengths every 12 seconds, which can be viewed and studied by scientists around the globe.

By studying our nearest star—the source of all life on Earth—SDO gives us an unprecedented understanding of both our dynamic Sun and how it affects life on Earth.

The Solar Dynamics Observatory captured this image of an X3.2-class flare peaking at 11:35 a.m. EDT on Oct. 28, 2021 from active region 2673, one of the largest sunspot regions seen on the Sun for almost half a decade (Hinode/Solar Optical Telescope).

While observing the Sun, SDO’s data was automatically sent to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Space Weather Prediction Center for analysis. Scientists at SWPC noticed a significant solar flare peaking at 11:35 a.m. EDT on Oct. 28, 2021 from active region 2673, one of the largest sunspot regions seen on the Sun for almost half a decade (Hinode/Solar Optical Telescope). Three hours later another X-class event occurred with this second burst peaking at 2:18 p.m., this time from active region 2674 which is currently rotating onto the Earth-facing side of our star (Solar Dynamic Observatory/LASCO C2).

Although both of these coronal mass ejections are directed right at Earth, an X-class event on its own is not expected to have any serious impacts to our planet. Despite this, NOAA officials said that space weather forecasters will be monitoring the situation closely over the next day or two for potential geomagnetic storming.

The geomagnetic storms mentioned here are caused when fast streams of solar wind interact with Earth’s magnetosphere and upper atmosphere, transferring energy which results in northern lights (aurora borealis) in locations where it is normally too faint to see due to daylight. Even small flares, like the ones seen recently, can cause auroras if they occur sufficiently close to Earth. Geomagnetic storms can also temporarily knock out power grids. According to NOAA, the most recent large-scale geomagnetic storm event was in 1989 when a CME connected with Earth’s magnetosphere. The energy rushed into the system, overloading circuits in Québec’s power grid and causing a massive blackout that left millions of people without electricity for as much as six hours.

Scientists are constantly learning more about our Sun, but there is still much to be understood. It is an evolving and active star which has seen many changes since humans first walked on its surface—more than 4 billion years ago. Numerous dynamic events have occurred throughout this lifetime including one so powerful it almost destroyed every life form on Earth! Luckily for us, due to the emptiness of space, the vastness of our solar system, and the protective shield that Earth provides, we were able to dodge this celestial bullet entirely.

While the Sun may seem like an unchanging object in the sky it is anything but. It continues to change every moment bringing us light, heat energy and life-supporting conditions—as long as we remain here on Earth!

NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory captured images of two significant solar flares peaking at 11:35 a.m. EDT on Oct. 28, 2021 from active region 2673 (left) and 2:18 p.m., EDT on Oct. 28 from active region 2674 which is currently rotating onto the Earth-facing side of our star (right) (Solar Dynamics Observatory/LASCO C2).

The Solar Dynamics Observatory captured this image of an X3.2-class flare peaking at 11:35 a.m. EDT on Oct. 28, 2021 from active region 2673, one of the largest sunspot regions seen on the Sun for almost half a decade (Hinode/Solar Optical Telescope). [Click to enlarge]

The geomagnetic storms mentioned here are caused when fast streams of solar wind interact with Earth’s magnetosphere and upper atmosphere, transferring energy which results in northern lights (aurora borealis) in locations where it is normally too faint to see due to daylight. Even small flares, like the ones seen recently, can cause auroras if they occur sufficiently close to Earth. Geomagnetic storms can also temporarily knock out power grids. According to NOAA, the most recent large-scale geomagnetic storm event was in 1989 when a CME connected with Earth’s magnetosphere. The energy rushed into the system, overloading circuits in Québec’s power grid and causing a massive blackout that left millions of people without electricity for as much as six hours.