The sun flexed its considerable magnetic muscles today (June 13), and two solar spacecraft captured the show on video.
Earth’s star unleashed a long-duration solar flare early this morning, blasting high-energy radiation into space for about three hours. NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory (SDO), which has been studying the sun from Earth orbit since 2010, observed the dramatic event in multiple wavelengths.
The flare registered as an M3.4, putting it in the “medium” class of solar outburst. It was strong enough, however, to cause temporary radio blackouts (opens in new tab) in the Asia-Pacific region here on Earth. (Scientists put powerful solar flares into three categories, C, M and X, with C being the weakest and X the most intense.)
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This morning’s flare was also associated with a coronal mass ejection (CME), a huge cloud of superheated plasma that rockets away from the sun at tremendous speeds. Both SDO and the Solar and Heliospheric Observatory (SOHO), a NASA/European Space Agency probe that launched in 1995, snapped imagery of today’s CME, showing the plasma cloud’s immense size and impressive speed.
The two spacecraft’s views were complementary, given their different orbits; SOHO circles the sun at the Lagrange Point 1, a gravitationally stable spot in space about 930,000 miles (1.5 million kilometers) from Earth in the direction of our star.
Big CMEs that hit Earth can trigger powerful geomagnetic storms, which can have effects both negative (potential satellite damage) and positive (supercharged auroral displays). But it doesn’t appear that today’s CME was aligned with Earth, experts said.
The sun has been firing off a number of flares recently. That’s no surprise, given that our star’s 11-year activity cycle is expected to peak in 2025 or so.
Mike Wall is the author of “Out There (opens in new tab)” (Grand Central Publishing, 2018; illustrated by Karl Tate), a book about the search for alien life. Follow him on Twitter @michaeldwall (opens in new tab). Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom (opens in new tab) or on Facebook (opens in new tab).