The biggest solar flare since 2017 spotted by NASA — and there could be more to come as the Sun wakes up

  • The Sun spit out its largest solar flare in the last 925 days, since October 2017.
  • Scientists with National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) are now on the lookout for whether this dictates a larger trend of the Sun waking up again.
  • Solar flares don’t pose a direct threat to humans on Earth but hold the potential to wreak havoc on satellites in orbit and astronauts travelling through space.
The Sun has been quiet over the last few years. The activity of solar flares has been weak and infrequent. However, that looks like it’s set to change with Earth’s home start spitting out its biggest solar flare since October 2017.

The solar flare in question occurred on May 29 at around 3:24 EST (12:54 pm IST). it was an M-class solar flare — the second strongest as per NASA’s classification guide. It was pretty mild as per solar flare standards since it wasn’t pointed directly at Earth clocking in at just M1.1 on the 10-point scale.

Close up of a M7.3 solar flare in 2014NASA

“The flares were too weak to pass the threshold at which NOAA’s [National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration] Space Weather Prediction Centre provides alerts,” said the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). It’s keeping an eye out to see if a new solar cycle in the making which could mean more solar flares in the coming months.

All of this will be determined when the sunspots — dark freckles on the Sun’s surface — come into view. Right now, the Earth is witness to the tip-off from Cycle 24 into Cycle 25. Scientists are watching to check to the Sun is indeed starting to wake up from its slumber. Just one flare isn’t enough to dictate an entire trend.

What is a solar flare — and is it dangerous to humans?
A solar flare is a powerful burst of radiation that originates from the Sun in a loop of plasma that originates from a family of sunspots. Most of the radiation gets filtered out by the Earth’s atmosphere. However, that doesn’t mean that it doesn’t leave its mark.

Most of Earth’s satellites are located outside the atmosphere in the planet’s orbit. So when a solar flare does occur, it can have an immense impact on GPS and communications signals. Radiation storms in near-Earth space also pose a threat to astronauts leaving them incapable of leaving the International Space Station (ISS).

In the past M-class solar flares have been known to cause radio blackouts in polar regions where the Earth’s atmosphere is at its thinnest. On the flip side, solar flares also general some of the most spectacular light shows at higher altitudes — the Aurora Borealis and Aurora Australis.

The moody and unpredictable star we call the Sun
The Sun normally has an 11-year cycle during which the activity of solar flares tends to ramp up and fall along with the sunspots on its surface. NASA and NOAA track these changes to determine and predict how the cycle is moving, and when the worst of the flares are likely to occur.

The problem is that our home-grown star tends to be unpredictable. “Just because the sunspot numbers go up or down in a given months doesn’t mean it won’t reverse course the next month, only to go back again the month after that,” said NASA.

The key to determining how the Sun’s going to behave is pinning down its solar minimum — when the lowest number of sunspots are likely to occur. In order the determine the solar minimum, astronomers need to see the number of sunspots increase steadily to determine when they will plummet again.

This poses a challenge since it means that the solar minimum can only be recognised in hindsight. “It could six to 12 months after the fact to confirm when the minimum has actually passed,” said NASA.

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