Flaring Up

February 17, 2011

Rheanna Sand


While most of us were scrambling, scoring, or sobbing this Valentine’s Day, our closest star was having a blast. At 8:54pm EST on February 14th 2011, the Sun exuded an X-class solar flare, which, technically speaking, is larger than a C- or M-class, but not as satisfying as an XXX-class. The last one of this magnitude was in 2006, and the resulting solar wind disrupted global positioning satellites (GPS), interfering with communications, transportation, and most importantly, outdoors-y people.

Luckily, this one shouldn't cause any major problems – but NASA is predicting some extra bright and active aurora borealis through the 17th-18th. Excellent! A little treat from the Sun that helps soothe the pain of winter for those of us who live at high latitudes. I’ll take what I can get.

If you are curious about the aurora, here are the basics: solar flares jet charged atoms into space, and our magnetic field attracts them to the poles. When they stream toward the Earth, they hit atoms in our atmosphere, and like neon gas being excited by electricity the atoms in our atmosphere release photons, causing the beautiful glow. As our magnetic field lines are stretched and snap back into place, the Northern Lights dance.

Now, thanks to the wonderful Solar Dynamics Observatory, and the magic of the internets, you can see for yourself the extreme close-ups of X-class solar flares followed by coronal mass ejections. How romantic!




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