The sun emitted a massive solar flare yesterday, likely resulting in two explosive coronal mass ejections (CME). The radiation headed right for Earth and interfered with some high-frequency radio communications for about an hour. The majority of Earthlings were completely unaffected by this event, as the planet’s magnetosphere protects us from the brunt of the damage. Instead of the CME making Earth completely inhospitable like Venus, the particles are largely deflected.
Evidence of the magnetosphere’s protection can be seen at the North and South poles in the form of colored lights known as auroras. Aurora Borealis is seen in the North, while Aurora Australis occurs in the South. Charged CME particles that have been trapped by the magnetic field travel toward the poles and excite oxygen and nitrogen in the upper atmosphere. As the elements return to their ground state, they kick off a photon that creates colorful light. Oxygen produces green and yellow light, while nitrogen is responsible for blue or red.
Yesterday’s event was a mighty X1.6 class, which is the strongest class of solar flare. Because of the intensity, it is predicted that there will be some gorgeous auroras tonight (Sept 11) and tomorrow as a result. Though prime viewing of auroras typically occur in the northern-most portion of the United States and up into Canada, it is predicted that those as far south as Pennsylvania and Iowa could possibly see the Northern Lights.
Image from NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory, capturing the X1.6 solar flare from September 10, 2014. Image Credit: NASA/SDO
However, the CME stemming from the solar flare were so intense that the NOAA Space Weather Prediction Center has issued a watch for a G2 (moderate) geomagnetic storm on September 12, with a watch for a G3 (strong) geomagnetic storm on September 13. These storms temporarily affect the magnetic field, causing an influx of energy.
There’s no need to panic about the storm though, as it’s still just a “watch” at of the time of this writing. Astronauts and pilots at high altitudes could be exposed to additional radiation, but those of us with our feet on the ground should stay perfectly safe. There is the possibility that power grids and satellites used for navigation and communication could be damaged. NOAA SWPC will provide updated information as it comes in.
A few weeks ago, the ESA released a video of astronauts aboard the ISS flying over an aurora. It’s pretty badass, you should go watch it.
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