What’s a solar flare?

Aug. 16, 2011, Geek.com, by Jennifer Bergen

There has been a lot of talk about solar flares the past few weeks. For those of you who are not space nerds, the term solar flare may be unfamiliar to you. It sounds like a terrifying phenomenon that would send giant balls of fire hurling down to earth, but that’s not necessarily the case. NASA has created a handy video putting solar flares into terms anyone can understand and eliminating the paranoia that a ball of fire will rain down on Earth and end all life as we know it.

So, what the heck is a solar flare? NASA says that flares are basically explosions on the surface of the Sun that can last minutes to hours in length. Flares are the result of powerful magnetic fields in and around the sun reconnecting. For the most part, these connections usually happen around active regions where there’s a strong magnetic field. These regions are most often seen as sun spots. Every 11 years, the sun reaches its maximum activity and the solar flares become bigger and more common.

Flares are classified in a similar way to the Richter scale for earthquakes where each letter represents a ten-fold increase in energy output. The smallest flares are B-class, then C, then M, and the largest are classified as X-class. Each letter has a scale of one to nine, so an X9 is an extremely powerful flare, whereas a B1 is not much to write home about. Also an X-class flare is 10 times an M and 100 times a C. Since X9 is technically the largest classification, flares can go above an X9.

Just last week we saw an X6.9-class flare, but the most powerful flare ever to be recorded happened in 2003 and was so powerful that it overloaded the sensors that were measuring it, making it an out-of-category event that had never been seen or experienced before, an X45. The flare wasn’t directly pointed at Earth, but there were some pretty awesome Northern Lights seen a few days later.

A powerful solar flare, like the 2003 flare, can create long-lasting radiation storms. This can harm satellites and can also give anyone flying in a plane near the poles a small dose of radiation. X-flares can also cause worldwide blackouts and can create global transmission problems.

NASA and NOAA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, monitor the Sun and can now see the Sun from every side and from many different wavelengths. This allows scientists to predict space weather events like flares and then warn governments and companies in advance if a solar flare’s radiation may be likely to affect the country.


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