spaceSpace and Physics

Solar Flare Filmed in Exquisite Detail


Stephen Luntz

Stephen has a science degree with a major in physics, an arts degree with majors in English Literature and History and Philosophy of Science and a Graduate Diploma in Science Communication.

Freelance Writer

614 Solar Flare Filmed in Exquisite Detail
NASA/SDO/Goddard Space Flight Center. Images taken at two ultraviolet frequencies have been coloured as red and yellow
NASA has turned an April 2 solar flare into a beautiful video.

The NOAA issued a minor geomagnetic storm forecast in response to this event, but only a minor blip on the charts was observed.
Solar flares are extraordinary demonstrations of the sun's power. Energy released can be thousands of times that of a comet hitting the Earth and billions of times such puny explosions as volcanic eruptions or nuclear bombs. This energy is released in many forms, including high energy light such as X-Rays and Gamma Rays.
Flares are often, although not always, accompanied by Coronal Mass Ejections (CMEs). A major CME occurred a few days earlier from a smaller flare, but not a lot resulted from the flare filmed here.
Were it not for the protective layers of our atmosphere, the radiation from solar flares would be lethal. Even as it is they can be a hazard to spacecraft, including satellites, and can disrupt communication even within the Earth's atmosphere. 
In 1989 a geomagnetic storm caused by a solar flare around 20 times as powerful as this one crashed the Quebec power grid, taking 9 hours to restore. Mechanisms to deal with such events in future have been implemented by some power companies, but there are concerns as to whether these are adequate.
The April 2 event was classified as M6.5. M class events are large, and this one was 6.5 times the minimum M event, but an X1 event is ten times the smallest M flare, and a category Z has been proposed for truly enormous cases. The Carrington Event of 1859 was a flare/CME so powerful it produced auroras in Cuba and Hawaii and left traces in the Greenland Icesheet. Even in recent years we have witnessed events up to 30 times as powerful as the one in the film, but with new space telescopes the images just keep getting better.
Flares occur most frequently around solar maximums – periods roughly every 11 years when the magnetic activity on the sun, tracked using sunspots, is at its highest. We appear to be close to such a maximum now, if not having just passed it, but this has been one of the lowest maximums in the last century.
Although it is still not possible to predict flares well beforehand, confirmation last month of the model of their formation takes us a step towards this goal.
If that has whetted your appetite, check out this gorgeous video by Henry Jun Way Lee, the second half of which shows the effects on the skies from Iceland of a CME associated with a similar sized flare in February this year.


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