Largest Solar Flare Observed: Communication Blackouts Reported Along With A Scintillating Show

Solar activity seems to have peaked sharply in the last few days, with frequent massive solar flares being ejected out of the Sun. The biggest happened today, 9th August, 2011, early morning EST time.

Solar activity cycle lasts for 11 years and waxes and wanes predictably over that period. The Solar maximum is expected in 2013 and these are events leading up to that climax.

An image of a flare taken by the SOHO satellite. Notice the central disc of the Sun being blocked out, so that the peripheral features are prominent - a feature of SOHO. (Photo Courtesy: NASA/JPL)

Today’s Blast

Today’s solar flare and Coronal Mass Ejection, though not directed right at Earth, caused blackouts in a number of places on the sunlit side of the Earth. It hampered satellite communication and also interrupted HF (high frequency) communications, with reporting blackouts.

The current solar flare has a large X-ray component to it, the highest, in fact, in this solar cycle. The previous largest flare had occurred on 15th Feb, 2011 and had an X-Ray rating of X2.2. The current one weighs in at a massive X6.9, more than three times the former. Come 2013, and we might expect X9.0 storms, which will wreck havoc on communication systems of Earth. Satellites and other artificial orbiting bodies might be severely damaged.

The Soho satellite captured a series of images that were made into this gif. (Courtesy: NASA/JPL)

Lucky, in two ways

It seems that Earth had the luck to escape this time, but we may not be this lucky in coming weeks. Although nothing catastrophic is predicted, communication blackouts can be expected.

The solar flares also give a brilliant sight to behold, as charged particles are accelerated in the Earth’s magnetic field and also hit the nuclei in the Earth’s atmosphere, causing beautiful auroras. To see auroras, you’ll have to be in higher latitudes, though.

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Debjyoti Bardhan

Is a science geek, currently pursuing some sort of a degree (called a PhD) in Physics at TIFR, Mumbai. An enthusiastic but useless amateur photographer, his most favourite activity is simply lazing around. He is interested in all things interesting and scientific.