The sun, our apparently attention-deficit star, released another solar flare today, June 11, following the two it produced on Tuesday, June 10. The event interfered with long-range radio communications used by aircraft, but only briefly. The real concern has to do with coronal mass ejections (CMEs) which are material explosions from the sun that can occur during solar flares. A CME can cause damage.
Fortunately, a CME is considered extremely dangerous only when the ejection is directed towards Earth. The sun only recently rotated in a way that exposed Earth slightly to the solar flares. However, the star is slowly rotating into a more Earth-focused phase, putting NASA on alert.
The third solar flare, which was an X1-class flare (intense enough to at least warrant our attention), most likely will not have a CME as per officials. The same thing was said about Tuesday's flares, both of which did eventually produce minor CMEs. The most that a minor CME can do is produce a small polar geomagnetic storm, a disturbance in Earth's magnetic field caused by solar winds. While that sounds unpleasant, a minor storm can only cause weak power grid fluctuations, interfere a little with spacecraft operations and cause oxygen and nitrogen molecules in the upper atmosphere to release light-in other words, auroras. Despite the frequency of these solar flares, productions of minor CMEs are not major matters of concern.
Due to the sun's entrance into the active phase of its 11-year solar cycle, NASA expects similar occurrences in the near future. NASA and the agency's Solar Dynamics Observatory (SDO) are closely monitoring the sun's progress through its cycle with STEREO probes (Solar Terrestrial Relations Observatory) and the SOHO (Solar and Heliospheric Observatory) spacecraft designed and implemented by the European Space Agency and NASA.
The most powerful modern solar flare occurred on November 4, 2003, and measured at a size of X45. No major damage occurred, but as a result, NASA improved protection by advancing its prediction tools. The electromagnetic energy from X-flares cannot cause death or destruction, but in an increasingly technological world, solar flares can handicap some of our most useful and frequently used tools. The main takeaway, if ever there is a major flare predicted followed by an extreme CME, pop out the old print maps because GPS won't help.
The minor CME from Tuesday's second flare is expected to hit Earth on Friday, June 13, and will deliver "a glancing blow" as per astronomer Tony Phillips of the U.S. Space Weather Prediction Center.