Powerful solar storms erupt from the Sun

Gwen Vasquez
September 12, 2017

Caused by the sudden release of magnetic energy, in just a few seconds flares can accelerate solar particles to very high velocities, nearly to the speed of light, and heat solar material to tens of millions of degrees.

The sun fired off yet another powerful solar flare yesterday (Sept. 10), its seventh in seven days.

Space weather scientists classify flares based on their intensity, with X-class flares being the most powerful. It released an amount of energy comparable to that of a billion hydrogen bombs and sent radiation and plasma soaring toward Earth that's not harmful to life thanks to our planet's atmosphere and magnetic field.

So it might sound quite dramatic that the largest solar flare in over a decade - 12 years to be exact - was recorded on 6 September 2017 over a 48 hour period, but its effects were nothing short of spectacular.

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The Sun emitted two powerful flares on Wednesday, September 6, followed by a coronal mass ejection (CME) that could damage Earth-orbiting satellites and shut down electronic communication and power grids while also producing lovely auroras. An X2 is twice as intense as an X1, an X3 is three times as intense, etc.

During large solar flares, the sun can also sling a cloud of energetic plasma from its body, an event called a coronal mass ejection (CME).

According to the Space Weather Prediction Center (SWPC), these so-called category X eruptions disrupted high-frequency radio communications for one hour on the Earth's side facing the sun and low-frequency communications used in navigation.

The largest ever recorded example of a solar flare has been recorded as striking Earth, but thankfully its effects have been pretty spectacular. The current cycle of the sun, which began in December 2008, saw the intensity of solar activity decline sharply, opening the way to the "solar minimum". "The number of Active Regions, where flares occur, is low, so to have X-class flares so close together is very unusual", said Aaron Reid, a research fellow at Queen's University Belfast, in a news release.

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