A massive X-class solar flare was detected coming from the sun just hours before Lunar New Year—and it could be the strongest since 2017.
NASA reported that it struck at 8:14 a.m. EST on February 9 and was detected by the space agency’s Solar Dynamics Observatory, which watches the sun constantly as it orbits Earth.
SDO captured the above image of the spectacular event, which shows a bright flash of ultraviolet light on the lower right.
Although it’s been officially classified as an X3.3 flare—which is not as intense as the X5-class solar flare detected by Earth-orbiting satellites on New Year’s Eve—solar physicists suspect that today’s solar event is actually much more powerful than it initially seemed.
“Measuring in at a X3.38-class, today’s flare clocks in about 32% smaller than the NYE X5 event. So how can it be the biggest?” said Dr. Ryan French, a solar physicist at the National Solar Observatory in Boulder, Colorado and the author of The Sun: Beginner’s Guide To Our Local Star, on X. “Well, a significant proportion (>32%?) of the emission is hidden behind the edge of the Sun.”
What could be the strongest solar flare since 2017 had almost instant effects on Earth. Solar flares are powerful bursts of radiation that travel at light-speed, taking just eight minutes to reach Earth. “X-class” solar flares in particular can affect Earth’s magnetic field, potentially damaging satellites and communications equipment and power grids. They can also be a threat to astronauts.
Just hours after the X-class solar flare, SpaceWeather.com was reporting a “radiation storm” that was intensifying, which was confirmed as a minor event by NOAA’s Space Weather Prediction Center. It also reported that the X-class flare triggered a coronal mass ejection on the sun—an expected event—a cloud of magnetic fields and plasma that can lead to aurora on Earth.
Today’s solar flare came from sunspot AR3575 just as that part of the sun was rotating to face away from Earth. “The CME is being analyzed, but is anticipated to be just ahead of Earth and not likely to be directed at Earth,” said the SWPC. NASA confirmed that this CME is heading not for Earth, but for Mercury, Venus and Mars. It will arrive this weekend.
The sun is currently close to solar maximum, the peak of its magnetic activity in its 11 years solar cycle. Its status is only judged in retrospect, with historical numbers of sunspots—dark areas that appear on its surface—which are more numerous during solar maximum.
Wishing you clear skies and wide eyes.