New sunspots mark new solar activity, resulting in a spectacular New Year flare and a Coronal Mass Ejection only a few days ago – headed directly at Earth.
The Sun appears to be pretty active this month after a quiet period in the beginning of December. A solar eruption on the 31st of December, propelled outwards by the massive magnetic forces in the Sun’s corona, failed to escape the Sun’s gravity and ended up falling gracefully back into the Sun.
At its height (pictured), it was around 160,000 miles long – about 20 times the size of Earth.
In recent days a couple of regions named AR 11652 and AR 11654 by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) – have produced four low-level M-class solar flares – classified by the amount of energy they release in the form of X-rays.
On January 13th another solar eruption took place that had enough energy to escape the Sun’s gravity as a Coronal Mass Ejection – effectively a giant “bullet” of coronal material that is shot out into space, in this case straight for Earth.
In case you’re getting worried, don’t be. The Earth has a pretty nifty thing called the Magnetosphere that effectively shields us from this kind of solar activity. The charged particles of the coronal mass ejection will effectively bounce off the magnetosphere releasing energy as they do so, and this energy is absorbed in the atmosphere – the same mechanism is responsible for producing the Aurora Borealis.
And additionally, as the coronal mass ejections take about three days to get here, its probably happened or happening already.
Unfortunately, satellites in orbit are much less shielded from the radiation and some (very) minor disruption with this size flare and CME combo is to be expected.
We’ve previously covered some other Coronal Mass Ejections and the fantastic light shows they produce back in October. Currently we’re approaching the maximum in the 11 year-long solar activity cycle, so more solar flares and coronal mass ejections are to be expected in the run up to May, which is predicted to be the very peak of solar activity based on numbers of sunspots, dark areas on the Sun that indicate raised local magnetic activity.
This cycle – cycle number 24 since records of sunspot numbers began around 250 years ago- is predicted to be a lesser maximum than every other cycle in the last 100 years, and currently low numbers of sunspots are bearing that prediction out.
Main Image Credit: JPL/NASA (SDO)