NASA has snapped the most powerful category of solar flare on camera while it was on it’s way to Earth.
The flare – which was captured by NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory – is classed as an X1. X-class denotes that it’s one of the most intense flares, while the number provides more information about its strength.
X-flares are the top classification, and these are 10 times stronger than the next level down – M flares.
Major solar flares can knock out certain radio frequencies and can make GPS positioning less accurate.
We’re currently heading towards the Solar Maximum – a time when solar flares are at their most frequent, strong, and potentially catastrophic if they hit Earth.
But even before we get there, the last few months have exceeded predictions and occasionally SpaceX satellites fall out of the sky as a result.
Solar flares are powerful bursts of energy, creating an eruption of electromagnetic radiation from the Sun’s atmosphere. Flares regularly come with coronal mass ejections, or solar radiation storms, which can impact radio communications, electric power grids, navigation signals, and pose risks to spacecraft and astronauts.
As we become increasingly reliant on technology and satellites which are less protected from solar activity, such events could be even more troubling.
In 1972, a solar flare knocked out long-distance telephone communication across the US while a 1989 solar flare left six million Canadians without power for nine hours. And in 2000, an X5-class solar flare on Bastille Day caused some satellites to short circuit and led to radio blackouts.
A huge silver lining though is that auroras are more common and can be seen further from the poles after a big solar storm.
This rise and fall of solar activity is on an 11 year cycle, and at its most active, called solar maximum, the Sun is freckled with sunspots and its magnetic poles reverse.
During solar minimum, on the other hand, sunspots are few and far between. Often, the Sun is as blank and featureless as an egg yolk.
December 2019 marked the beginning of Solar Cycle 25, and already we’re seeing a huge ramp up of solar activity before the next solar maximum in 2025.
Space.com reported that the X1 solar flare might have disrupted Hurricane Ian disaster response. The radio blackout, classed by NOAA as ‘R3’, likely affected rescue workers using 25 MHz radios to communicate.
The disruption in the upper layers of Earth’s atmosphere caused by the flare may also have disrupted some GPS positioning.
Jacinta Bowler is a science journalist at Cosmos. They have a undergraduate degree in genetics and journalism from the University of Queensland and have been published in the Best Australian Science Writing 2022.