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Strongest solar flare in 7 years prompts auroras and satellite warnings

On a seemingly ordinary Thursday at 22:34 GMT (17:34 EST), the sun unleashed a massive solar flare, marking the most significant such event in seven years. This phenomenon represents a powerful explosion within the sun’s atmosphere, illuminating the intricate dance of celestial forces at play.

Solar flares, as NASA elucidates, are intense bursts of radiation emanating from the sun’s surface. These eruptions can cause significant disturbances on Earth, affecting everything from power grids and navigation signals to spacecraft and astronauts.

Despite their potential for disruption, they also gift us with the ethereal beauty of auroras, painting the sky with vibrant colors visible near the Earth’s poles.

Solar flare X6.3 event

The recent flare, classified as an X6.3 event, is part of a series of flares that have occurred since Wednesday, as reported by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

While not as monumental as the flares of September 2017, which included an X9.3 and an X8.2, this event underscores the sun’s ever-present capacity for awe-inspiring displays of energy.

The classification system for solar flares, ranging from A to X, with X being the most severe, highlights the varying degrees of these solar phenomena.

This week’s X6.3 flare stands out as the largest of its kind during the current solar cycle, a period marked by the sun’s magnetic field undergoing a complete reversal approximately every 11 years. We are currently in cycle 25, which began in 2019 and is anticipated to last until about 2030.

Auroras and potential GPS and satellite disruptions

The cycle’s progression influences the sun’s activity levels, from the tranquility of the solar minimum to the tumultuous solar maximum, characterized by an increase in sunspots and solar flares.

The implications of such solar activity extend beyond the confines of space, touching down on Earth with the potential for both disruption and natural wonder.

The particles ejected by solar flares, taking roughly two days to reach Earth, can ignite the sky with auroras — a spectacle traditionally confined to regions close to the poles but sometimes visible further afield under favorable conditions.

Beyond their visual majesty, solar flares and the related coronal mass ejections (CMEs) pose challenges to our increasingly technology-dependent world.

High-speed solar winds emanating from coronal holes, areas on the sun where magnetic fields open into space, can exacerbate these effects, leading to auroras and disruptions in communication systems.

NOAA solar flare forecast discussion

As mentioned above, the most striking event was the production of an X6.3/3b flare by Active Region (AR) 3590, situated at N18E26. This flare, recorded at 22:34 UTC on February 22nd, stands as the largest flare observed in this solar cycle, underscoring the dynamic nature of our sun.

Accompanying this event was a tenflare, reaching a peak of 240 Solar Flux Units (SFU) at 22:25 UTC the same day. Despite the magnitude of this flare, no coronal mass ejections (CMEs) were detected, indicating a lack of significant outward material ejection from the sun’s corona.

In parallel, new solar regions have been identified and monitored. New Region 3591, located at S34E77, exhibited a moderate M1.5 flare early at 00:14 UTC on the same day.

Additional regions, 3592 (S12E78) and 3593 (S04W58), have also been cataloged, though they remained relatively inactive during the observed period. The absence of Earth-directed CMEs during this time provides a somewhat reassuring outlook for our planet’s near-term space weather environment.

Looking ahead, experts anticipate sustained high solar activity through February 25th, with M-class flares expected to occur frequently. There is also a potential for X-class flares, given the recent activities of ARs 3590 and 3591.

This forecast underscores the ongoing vigilance required in monitoring solar phenomena and their potential impacts on space weather.

Energetic particles and their influence

Over the past 24 hours, the solar system has experienced near-background levels of proton flux above 10 MeV, while electron flux levels above 2 MeV have been observed at normal to moderate intensities.

The forecast suggests a slight possibility of an S1 (Minor) proton event occurring within the next three days (February 23rd to 25th), primarily due to the potential activity from AR3590.

Additionally, the electron flux is expected to maintain its current levels, contributing to the overall energetic particle dynamics within Earth’s vicinity.

Solar wind, solar flares, and CME

The solar wind environment has maintained nominal levels, with total field strength peaking at 7 nanoTeslas (nT) and wind speeds averaging near 325 km/s.

A noteworthy shift occurred when the solar wind’s magnetic polarity switched from positive to negative around 09:00 UTC on February 23rd.

Forecasts predict these nominal conditions to persist through February 24th, with the influence of a CME and a Coronal Hole High Speed Stream (CH HSS) anticipated on February 25th.

This event is expected to pass ahead of Earth’s orbit, potentially influencing the solar wind conditions encountered by our planet.

Geospace outlook: Emerging storm potential

The geomagnetic field has exhibited quiet conditions, while the Interplanetary Magnetic Field (IMF) has returned to background levels. The immediate forecast indicates a continuation of these quiet conditions through February 24th.

However, a shift is expected on February 25th when G1 (Minor) storm levels are likely to be reached. This change is attributed to the combined effects of the February 21st CME, related to a filament eruption, and the impact of a CH HSS.

These phenomena highlight the interconnected nature of solar and geomagnetic activity, as well as the importance of continuous monitoring to predict and mitigate potential impacts on Earth and its technological systems.

What happens next?

In summary, NASA’s recent capture of the most powerful solar flare in seven years marks a significant event in our ongoing observation of solar phenomena.

This X6.3 class flare, emanating from the sun’s atmosphere, underscores the dynamic and sometimes volatile nature of our closest star.

The NOAA warns of the potential for disruptions to Earth’s technological infrastructure, including power grids and navigation systems, while also promising the breathtaking spectacle of auroras across polar skies.

As we continue to monitor these solar activities through the vigilant eyes of agencies like NASA and NOAA, we gain valuable insights into the sun’s cycles and their broader implications for both Earth and space.

This event serves as a vivid reminder of the sun’s power and the delicate balance between its beauty and its potential to impact human technology and space exploration.

The full NASA report can be found here…


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