The sun launched a massive solar flare yesterday that’s headed in Earth’s direction – the strongest storm seen in the current weather cycle.
The volley of radiation may trigger the northern lights if it collides with our atmosphere, and could cause major issues for power grids, experts suggest.
NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory, which tracks the Sun’s activity, captured an image of the event at 11:35 a.m. EST (4:35 p.m. BST) on Thursday.
It has already caused a temporary, but strong, radio blackout in parts of South America, according to the U.S. Space Weather Prediction Center (SWPC).
The flare is the result of a coronal mass ejection (CME) – a huge expulsion of plasma from the Sun’s outer layer, called the corona.
In a blog post, NASA said that the “significant” flare has been classified an X1.
Flares are ranked by letter, with the biggest labeled as “X-class.” The smallest flares are “A-class.”
Higher numbers designate more intense flares. NASA logged an X28 in 2003, though an X1 is still a significant eruption.
The flare is expected to hit Earth over the weekend, meaning it could land on Halloween on October 31.
Dr. Tamitha Skov, a space weather physicist, said on Twitter: “A direct hit for Halloween! The solar storm launched during the X-flare today is indeed Earth-directed!”
“NASA predictions confirm impact by early October 31.”
“Expect aurora to mid-latitudes, as well as GPS reception issues and amateur radio disruptions on Earth’s nightside!”
Solar flares can have an impact on Earth. They affect our planet’s magnetic field, which in turn can disrupt power grids and communications networks.
“Harmful radiation from a flare cannot pass through Earth’s atmosphere to physically affect humans on the ground,” NASA said.
“However – when intense enough – they can disturb the atmosphere in the layer where GPS and communications signals travel.”
Thankfully, due to the flare’s intensity, any disruption it causes is likely to be temporary.
In the past, larger solar flares have wreaked havoc on our planet.
In 1989, a strong solar eruption shot so many electrically charged particles at Earth that the Canadian Province of Quebec lost power for nine hours.
As well as causing issues for our tech, they can cause harm to astronauts working on the International Space Station, either through radiation exposure or by interfering with mission control communications.
The Earth’s magnetic field helps to protect us from the more extreme consequences of solar flares.
Weaker solar flares are responsible for auroras like the Northern Lights.
Those natural light displays are examples of the Earth’s magnetosphere getting bombarded by solar wind, which creates the bright green and blue displays.
The sun is currently at the start of a new 11-year solar cycle, which usually sees eruptions and flares grow more intense and extreme.
These events are expected to peak around 2025 and it’s hoped the Solar Orbiter will observe them all as it aims to fly within 26 million miles of the sun.