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space weather

The sun emitted its biggest flare of 2013 today

NASA has all the science behind the phenomenon.

THE SUN LET loose its strongest flare of the year so far this morning and NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory got the pictures to prove it.

A flare is a powerful burst of radiation and an increased numbers of them are expected around now because the sun’s normal 11-year activity cycle is ramping up towards solar maximum, which is expected later this year.

Harmful radiation from a flare cannot pass through Earth’s atmosphere to physically affect humans on the ground unless they are really big (or more significant in intensity). This one was only classed as a “moderate” flare. When they are intense enough, they can disturb the atmosphere in the layer where GPS and communications signals travel, disrupting radio signals for anywhere from minutes to hours.

This M6.5 flare, some ten times less powerful than the strongest flares (X-classes). M-class flares are the weakest flares that can still cause some space weather effects near Earth. This flare produced a radio blackout for a time at about 8.16am (Irish time). The blackout was categorised on the lower-end of the scale.

Want a close-up?

NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory captured this image of an M6.5 class flare at 8:16 EDT on April 11, 2013. This image shows a combination of light in wavelengths of 131 and 171 Angstroms. (Credit: NASA/SDO)

The flare was also associated with an Earth-directed coronal mass ejection (CME). This solar phenomenon can send billions of tons of solar particles into space and can reach Earth one to three days later. CMEs can affect electronic systems in satellites and on the ground. NASA believes the CME began at 8.36am (Irish time), leaving the sun at more than 600 miles per second.

NASA and NOAA – as well as the US Air Force Weather Agency (AFWA) and others – keep a constant watch on the sun to monitor for space weather effects such as geomagnetic storms which can be caused by earth-directed CMEs. With advance notification many satellites, spacecraft and technologies can be protected from the worst effects.

The joint ESA/NASA Solar Heliospheric Observatory (SOHO) captured this series of images of a coronal mass ejection (CME) on the morning of April 11, 2013 over the course of 8.48am to 9.36am. Mars can be seen on the left. (Image:  ESA&NASA/SOHO/GSFC)

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