Love wasn’t the only thing sparking heat on Valentine’s Day. According to NASA, the sun released the largest solar flare in four years! X-Class came from the sunspot 1158 on the surface and is expected to reach earth by mid week.
Solar flares occur when magnetic energy in the sun’s atmosphere build up and explodes, catapulting radiation in short and long wavelengths at around 900 km/second out into the universe. The energy is only 1/10 the amount emitted directly from the sun on a regular basis.
If confusion as to what these spectacles are, recall the Hollywood movie Knowing starring Nicolas Cage. The main culprit was not an earthly made bomb or human induced problem, but merely a giant solar flare that completely destroys the earth.
Just to be specific and not to start a panic, the solar flare which occurred a few days ago WILL NOT kill all life on earth! It’s not even something to worry about.
In addition to launching radiation at earth, a CME or coronal mass ejection is also on the way. A CME is the technical term for solar winds. It shouldn’t have any harm to human life, however, radio blackouts and satellite disruption are plausible since the flare will disturb the earth’s magnetic field.
Perhaps having my internet and cell phone go out for a few hours would be the same as a relaxing vacation in some tropical resort. I shall whip up a Piña Colada and keep my fingers are crossed!
NASA said 2011 is the peak of the suns 11 year cycle and will output more frequent flares than the normal years. The largest flare ever recorded occurred on September 1, 1859 and was dubbed the “Solar Storm of 1859.” Aurora’s could be seen without equipment and spread down to the lower latitudes.
Scientists study all types of flares from the small to massive ones which slam the earth. An article from Universe Today back in October of 2009 stated the satellite MESSENGER was able to collect 10-12 hours worth of data from an average sized flare.
From that episode, scientists were able to conclude that when sun flares happen, they emit constant streams of neutrons and less than 10% of ions make it past the suns magnetic field. The ones that make it are decayed and gain energy from the sudden acceleration off the surface.
Other than satellites, the largest concern is for space shuttles and any astronauts in the outer atmosphere when the flare reaches earth. Considering NASA’s current budget crisis, this scenario should be at a minimum and not affect any U.S. missions.
Locals can expect to see nothing from the city lights of Los Angeles and the storms that have finally reached us. Aurora’s were expected to be seen in the night sky around February 16th and 17th in the upper latitudes of the world and not so much here in LA.
If you’re a bigger science nut than I am, might I suggest jumping in the car and driving up towards the Canadian border? Consume an energy drink to stay awake for 23-25 hours of cruising the highway.
For those few people that need reminders on looking at the sun safely, NASA urges spectators NOT to look directly at the sun for a visual of these flares. Specialized equipment at observatories should provide what is necessary for viewing sun flares.