A huge sunspot that has doubled in size in just 24 hours is now facing the Earth – which means it can send a solar flame our way.
Sunspots are dark areas on the surface of the sun that are associated with intense radiation outbursts. They appear dark because they are cooler than other parts of the sun’s surface.
Sunspots are relatively cool because they form over areas where the sun’s magnetic fields are particularly strong – so strong that they prevent any heat in the sun from reaching the surface.
These entangled magnetic fields can sometimes suddenly rearrange themselves. When this happens, a sudden explosion of light and radiation is driven away from the sun in the form of a solar flame.
The sunspot that has grown in size recently is known as AR3038. Footage from NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory on Sunday shows how the sunspot has evolved over the past day or so, twisting and twisting.
“Yesterday the sunspot AR3038 was large. Today it is huge,” it says on the website SpaceWeather.com. “The fast-growing sunspot has doubled in size in just 24 hours.”
The magnetic field associated with the sunspot means that it can potentially send an M-class solar flare on Earth – the second strongest type. However, it is not known if this will be the case.
As of Monday morning, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Space Weather Prediction Center (SWPC) had not issued any warnings about solar flares.
If strong enough, solar flames can cause ground disturbance and disrupt radio communications networks and navigation systems. This can create problems for people who work in, among other things, the marine or aviation industry.
That said, it’s worth noting that an M-Class torch would probably not be particularly intrusive in any case. Although M-class flares are the second strongest type of solar flame, they only tend to cause moderate radio ink events. An M9 flare, the strongest of the M-Class, can cause loss of radio contact for tens of minutes in affected areas of the earth and degradation of low-frequency navigation signals. M-class flares are also common.
It is the less common X-Class flares that can cause more serious problems. X-class flare is the strongest type of flare. An X20 flare, for example, would cause complete high-frequency radio interruptions on the daylight side of the earth for several hours, and boats and planes would not be able to use navigation signals during this time.
Fortunately, such flares are very rare, estimated to occur less than once every 11 years – the length of an average solar cycle.