Monday, February 28, 2011

Sun Unleashes Massive Solar Flare

Last Thursday, the Sun discharged an immense solar flare, thankfully pointed away from the Earth. Since we are approaching the maximum in the solar cycle, the Sun is becoming more active. Solar flares and events known as Coronal Mass Ejections (CME), will become relatively common over the next year or two. A CME is where basically the Sun suddenly ejects a ton of material  out into space, as opposed to a solar flare, where most of the ejected material falls back onto the Sun.

This solar flare is nowhere near the most powerful one ever recorded. Actually, there was a flare on Valentine's Day that was almost ten times as powerful. That one was directed towards the Earth and it did cause a few problems. However, what is great about Thursday's flare is the awesome video the Solar Dynamic Observatory captured!

Solar flares and CMEs send a stream of charged particles towards Earth, which enter our atmosphere. The Earth's magnetic field forces the charged particles to flow towards either the North or South Pole, which causes the aurora borealis and the aurora australis (the northern and southern lights). Unfortunately, if enough particles make it to Earth, it can also generate electrical interference, called a geomagnetic storm. Satellites can be damaged and entire power-grids overloaded. In 1989, most of Quebec, Canada lost power due to a geomagnetic storm. In our modern world, where we rely on electronic devices for almost everything, including communication and navigation, this could be devastating if it occurred on a larger scale.

There's your science lesson for the day!

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