The sun is on a roll. It's been erupting solar flares since early last week, including the most powerful one ever recorded in its current 11-year cycle.
It sounds like the stuff of compelling science fiction novels, but experts say there's nothing to worry about: this is simply what stars do every now and then.
Still, it's pretty wild. For the uninitiated, solar flares are occasional radiation bursts that erupt from the sun into space after periods of magnetic activity. They occur when sped up charged particles interact with the plasma medium. In the solar system, they're the largest explosive events, but here on Earth, people are protected from those harmful rays thanks to the atmosphere.
Recent X-Class Solar Flares
The Solar Dynamics Observatory at NASA recorded an X8.2 class solar flare on Sept. 10. Class X are actually the most intense flares, and their accompanying number indicates its strength. An X2 flare is twice as intense as an X1, for instance.
The latest flare erupted from Active Region 2673. On Sept. 4, activity from this region began to intensify. Just over the past week, NASA recorded six class X flares, including an X9.3 flare on Sept. 6 — the highest so far on the current solar cycle, of which we're nine years in.
Solar flares can't affect humans on Earth, as mentioned, but if they're strong enough, they can disturb the atmosphere via the layer where GPS and communication signals travel.
Geomagnetic Storm Warnings
Because of the recent spate of solar flares, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Space Weather Prediction Center has issued a geomagnetic storm watch for Sept. 13, and a minor one for Sept. 14. Again, these won't affect Earth dramatically, but nowadays people need to be concerned with solar flares because they're increasingly becoming dependent on technology that can be affected by these events.
The SWPC has also asked astronauts aboard the International Space Station to take special precautions because they're flying above most of Earth's atmosphere and are at risk of exposure to radiation. The astronauts were advised not to perform spacewalks directly after a solar flare, for instance.
In the end, the intense solar flares identified recently are actually surprising since the sun is currently entering what's called a solar minimum, or the quieter, calmer part of the solar cycle.
Thoughts about the recent solar flares? Sound off in the comments section below!