The Sun Erupts: Largest Solar Flare in Four Years to Light Up the Sky

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Photo courtesy of NASA

An ultraviolet image from NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory shows Monday's X-class flare erupting from the sun.

Its wave of charged particles will collide with Earth’s orbit tonight at 10 p.m. EST. Should we be worried?

NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory (SDO) captured stunning images of the mega flare on Monday evening, as Valentine’s Day came to a close. Perhaps to honor the fire in Cupid’s heart, the sun emitted a Class X2.2 flare—the largest seen in the current solar cycle. Each cycle lasts approximately 11 years, and the current one—which began in January 2008—is expected to reach its peak around 2013.

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“It has been the largest flare since December 6, 2006, so a long time coming,” Phil Chamberlin, a scientist with the SDO, told space.com. “There were some clues that led us to believe the likelihood of moderate to large flares (M class or above) could occur, but we were all surprised when it actually happened to be a large X-class.”

When sunspot 1158 erupted, it sent forth a wave of radiation that hit the Earth within seconds. Clearly we all survived. But what’s going to happen when the so-called “coronal mass ejection” — basically a plasma cloud of protons and electrons — hits us tonight?

Not much. Although the cloud could cause radio blackouts and temporary communication problems with some satellites, life will proceed as normal because Earth’s magnetic field deflects most of the oncoming particles. The most noticeable effect will be dazzling displays of aurora borealis—the Northern Lights—which could be visible as far south as the northern United States. (via NASA)

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