The Sun just unleashed the strongest solar flare in almost five years

NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory captured this image of a solar flare, which can be seen in the lower right.

NASA/SDO

The sun unleashed a powerful side flare this week. The rash it came from a sunspot on the western edge of our local star and represents the most powerful solar flare seen since 2017.

NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory observed the explosion at 8:57 pm PT on Tuesday, causing a radio blackout for certain shortwave, aviation and other communications centered in Asia.

The flare was classified as X2.2. X-class flares are the strongest category measured by scientists, and the higher numbers following the X represent an increase in the power of the eruption. NASA recorded a few X1 flares last year, but this is the strongest seen since the sun released a pair of monster X-class flares, including an X9, in the second week of September 2017.

The strongest flare ever observed was above X28, in 2003.

The latest explosion was accompanied by a coronal mass ejection, which is charged plasma that moves more slowly and can create magnificent auroras when it collides with Earth’s magnetic field. But because the flare was located on the sunward side from Earth’s perspective, those particles weren’t pointed in our direction and won’t hit our planet.

The energy emitted by a flare, on the other hand, moves at the speed of light and spreads in all directions throughout the solar system, which is why it caused the radio blackout at the same time the flare could be seen.

The big bang is the latest indication that our current solar cycle is heating up. Our star goes through regular periods of high sunspot and flare activity about every decade or so. We are currently building towards a peak of activity that will arrive in the mid-2020s.

Our magnetosphere prevents radioactive eruptions from harming life on Earth’s surface, but it poses a risk to our satellites, communications systems, astronauts in space, and even the power grid on the ground.

Large-scale blackouts have been caused by flares in recent decades, but this is the first time we’ve come close to peak solar activity with thousands of new satellites in orbit. At the beginning of this year, SpaceX reported that a flare had essentially fried itself several of its Starlink satellites.

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