Are we safe from the sun? Solar flares keep on getting stronger
The sun is a tempestuous mistress - and her outbursts are becoming more and more violent as the weeks go on.
NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory spotted the summer's first 'X' solar flare on Friday - a huge outburst from the sun right at the top of the scale.
This came on the back of 12 'M' flares in just six days, with a M6.1 flare knocking out radio signals across the planet on Thursday - hinting at the destruction the sun could reign on our technology if Earth takes a full blast across its blow.
The sunspot group behind the flares - named as AR1515 - stretches across 118,681 miles (191,000km) of the sun's surface.
This makes it's width more than 15 Earths set end to end, said NASA solar astrophysicist C. Alex Young.
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NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory saw an active region on the sun, labeled AR1515, sent out an M5.3 class solar flare that peaked on Independence Day July 4th, 2012
You can fit 15 Earths in there: The solar flare AR1515 in close-up
The biggest flares are known as 'X-class flares' based on a classification system that divides solar flares according to their strength.
The smallest ones are A-class, which are similar to normal background levels, followed by B, C, M and X.
Similar to the Richter scale for earthquakes, each letter represents a 10-fold increase in energy output, meaning an X is ten times an M and 100 times a C.
The sun is now heading into the peak of its 11-year solar flare cycle, with 2013 expected to the tumultuous year.
With the increased spread in communications in the last 11 years, a sever solar storm could cause huge issues for the planet.
This image, captured by the Solar Dynamics Observatory, shows the M5.3 class solar flare that peaked on July 4, 2012
SUMI'ss instruments are designed to study magnetic fields of the sun's chromosphere -- a thin layer of solar atmosphere sandwiched between the visible surface, photosphere and its atmosphere, the corona
Radio blackouts occur when the X-rays or extreme UV light from a flare disturb the layer of Earth's atmosphere known as the ionosphere, through which radio waves travel.
The constant changes in the ionosphere change the paths of the radio waves as they move, thus degrading the information they carry.
This affects both high and low frequency radio waves alike.
The same region has also produced numerous coronal mass ejections or CMEs. They have been observed and modeled by NASA's Space Weather Center (SWC) and are thought to be moving relatively slowly, traveling between 300 and 600 miles per second.
Since the active region itself is so southerly in the sun, CMEs from this region are generally unlikely
to impact Earth.
The chromosphere is a narrow layer above the photosphere that raises in temperature with height. Normally, it can't be seen by the naked eye because the light from the photosphere of the Sun overpowers it. The coloring of the chromosphere (deep red) is caused by the immense hydrogen supply it contains
Nasa's Solar Dynamics Observatory captured an M5.6-class solar flare erupting from the sun's surface starting on July 2, from a huge sunspot called AR1515 in the sun's southern hemisphere.
The blast of particles - a 'coronal mass ejection' - was not directed towards Earth, but the charged particles caused brief radio interference across Europe.
From a different spot, but on that same day, the sun unleashed a coronal mass ejection (CME) that began at 4:36 AM on Tuesday.
Models from the NASA's Space Weather Center at Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md, described the CME at traveling at nearly 700 miles per second, but do not show it heading toward Earth.
Sunspots are darker than the surrounding area because they are slightly cooler, which makes them less luminous.
They are caused by the sun’s magnetic field becoming twisted – and it’s this twisting dynamic that can produce coronal mass ejections.
These contain billions of tons of gases bursting with X-rays and ultraviolet radiation.
They are mind-bogglingly hot – around 100,000,000C and the result of ionised solar particles becoming imprisoned by Earth’s magnetic field, exciting the gases in the atmosphere and emitting bursts of energy in the form of light.
However, these particles can also cause magnetic storms, which in extreme cases have been known to disrupt satellites and electricity grids.
In 1989, a CME was held responsible for leaving six million people in Quebec, Canada, without power.
Solar activity runs in 11-year cycles, with the current one peaking in 2013, so more violent space weather is on the horizon.
Dr Matthew Penn, of the National Solar Observatory in Arizona, said recently: 'Because the sun is becoming more active, it will have an impact on millions of people. Sunspots can cause the biggest and most damaging space storms that occur.
'During the next two years, we are expecting the number of sunspots visible on the sun to reach a maximum. We know that sunspots are the source of a lot of space weather and solar storms, so we expect a larger number of solar storms here at the Earth.’