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SDO films solar flare

The Solar Dynamics Observatory captured an array of images of a solar flare on Aug. 24. This one spectacularly shows the locus of the flare, on the left side of the sun.

This image of the  Aug. 24, 2014 solar flare was captured by the Solar Dynamics Observatory at 5:16 am MDT. Image courtesy NASA, SDO.

This image of the Aug. 24, 2014 solar flare was captured by the Solar Dynamics Observatory at 5:16 am MDT. Image courtesy NASA, SDO.

You can see more images of this week’s flare at SDO’s Facebook page or on the mission website.

Solar flares are energy releases. They happen when electrons, which carry a negative electrical charge, encounter the sun’s plasma. When that occurs, an explosion occurs and the particles are rapidly heated. Accelerated to very high velocities, they then move through the sun’s atmospheric layers and disperse into the solar system. When they reach the vicinity of Earth, they can pose a radiation hahttps://wordpress.com/post/zard to spacecraft and the astronauts inside them.

Solar flares are sometimes accompanied by an independent phenomenon known as a coronal mass ejection, in which atoms and ions are expelled from the star and sent on a high-speed journey through space. Coronal mass ejections can damage satellites, including those that transmit worldwide communications and provide geographic positioning system information, and disrupt the transmission of electricity on the planet. They can also impair the functioning of electronic devices on board high-altitude aircraft.

This week’s solar flare was not among the most powerful known to occur on the sun. Scientists measure the intensity of a flare according the amount of flux they produce in x-rays near Earth. There are five classes, ranked from weakest to most powerful: A,B, C, M, and X. Each of the classes involve flares that are about ten times more powerful than the next-lower class on the scale.

Within each class of solar flare there are numbered divisions that allow a more precise distinction between solar flares to be drawn. 

Sunday’s event was an M5 flare, which means that it was not as powerful as the X5.4-class flare that occurred on March 6, 2012, the X5-class “Bastille Day Storm” on July 14, 2000, or the X17-class (or maybe even an X28-class) event that wowed scientists in October 2003.

The October 28, 2003 flare was powerful enough to induce the European Space Agency to put its Solar and Heliospheric Observatory in a “safe mode,” so that sensitive instruments on board would not be damaged. The event caused numerous aircraft flight delays and forced astronauts aboard the International Space Station to take cover in an area shielded from the solar radiation. The operation of several satellites in Earth’s orbit was disrupted and even space probes as far away as Mars and Saturn were affected.

This image of the Oct. 28, 2003 solar flare was captured by ESA's Solar and Heliospheric Observatory. Image courtesy ESA.

This image of the Oct. 28, 2003 solar flare was captured by ESA’s Solar and Heliospheric Observatory. Image courtesy ESA.

The Bastille Day storm caused some radio broadcast disruptions and some damage to satellites.

You can learn more about well-known solar flare incidents here.

Bastille Day flare as seen by SOHO

This image of the July 14, 2000 Bastille Day storm was captured by the European Space Agency’s Solar and Heliospheric Observatory. SOHO used its Extreme Ultraviolet Imaging Telescope to capture it. Image courtesy ESA.

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