Biggest solar flares in 4 years heading toward Earth

By Alessondra Springmann, PCWorld

That big massive ball of burning hydrogen in the center of our solar system has been getting more and more active as of late -- the sun recently had three solar flares explode from the corona, its high temperature plasma atmosphere. Particularly powerful solar flares produce coronal mass ejections, which can reach temperatures of millions of degrees Fahrenheit at the time of explosion and can eventually reach Earth.

solar_flare_frame-5146183.jpg

Frame from an animated GIF showing the solar flare in question.

[Photo: NASA/Solar Dynamics Observatory]

We're lucky to live on this planet: This round, sweet Earth has a magnetic field that protects us terrestrial inhabitants from a good deal of space weather, including high radiation-charged particles emitted from the Sun during these coronal mass ejections (CMEs). That said, these latest three solar flares were the largest in the last four years, and they should put on a spectacular light show when they reach us tonight and on Friday. These flares also mark the ramping up of a new solar cycle, which means we should be seeing more and more solar flares in the next few years.

Most of these charged particles are deflected or trapped by Earth's magnetic field, but some make it through to our atmosphere and excite the oxygen and nitrogen atoms, making them glow blue, red, green, or magenta, producing the spectacular aurora we can see in northern or southern latitudes (sorry, folks at the equator). These recent solar flares should make for some spectacular aurorae tonight.

There is some chance that the charged particles that compose these CMEs might disrupt satellite communication systems, GPS satellites, or even cause damage to some spacecraft hardware, but NASA claims this shouldn't be much of a problem. In terms of folks who are excited about the prospects for improved communication during the collision of a CME with Earth's atmosphere, numerous amateur radio enthusiasts getting amped because solar radiation makes Earth's ionosphere more reflective to HF radio waves, so you can transmit your signals further.

In short, if you live in the northern or southern parts of the globe and have a clear view of a dark sky, expect a spectacular light show put on by the collision of our favorite star and Earth's atmosphere.

Did you see it? Let us know!

[NASA via BBC]

Alessondra Springmann has only seen the aurora once. Follow her on Twitter.

Reprinted with permission from PCWorld.com. Story copyright 2011 PC World Communications. All rights reserved.

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