The sun has magnetic structures and the conversation of the energy therein to light and heat energy brought out the concept of a ‘Solar Flare’. A Solar Flare is thus an energetic phenomenon that occurs in the sunspots, more like sudden effulgence on the sun, causing the emission of high energy x-ray radiation, and highly accelerated charged particles to depart the sun’s surface.
Solar Flares can be aptly described as giant explosions on the sun that dispatches energy, light and high speed particles into space and are majorly associated with coronal mass ejections (CMEs), a kind of solar magnetic storm.
With the sun currently moving towards another solar maximum, the number of solar flares increases approximately every 11 years, an implication that there will be more flares, some small and others big enough to propel their radiation all the way to Earth.
We of course have very big flares and some small ones, others so infinitesimal to affect Earth. The biggest of them are known as ‘X-class flares’ hinged on a classification system that creates divisions for solar flares based on their strength. The smallest ones are A-class (near background levels), followed by B, C, M and X. So we have a A, B, C, M and X in ascending power with each letter representing a 10-fold increase on energy output to the next letter. It connotes that X is ten times bigger than an M and M is 10 times a C, while C is ten times bigger than B, with A being ten times less than A. Within each letter class there is a finer scale from 1 to 9.
A, B, C class are weak flares that can barely have an effect on the planet, but M class flares has the capacity to cause brief radio blackouts at the poles and minor radiation storms that might endanger astronauts.
The biggest flare, the X-class flares are more than ten times the power of a Xi, an implication that they can go higher than 9. These flares were last experienced in 2003, when the world experienced the last solar maximum. The flare was so powerful that it overloaded the sensors measuring it, with the sensors cutting out at X28.
The Solar and Heliospheric Observatory (SOHO) spacecraft captured this image of a solar flare as it erupted from the sun early on Tuesday, October 28, 2003. Credit: ESA & NASA/SOHO
The X-class flares, beautiful to watch are the largest explosions in the solar system, as they loop tens of times the size of Earth leap up off the sun’s surface when the sun’s magnetic fields cross over each other and then reconnect. In the process of reconnecting, energy as much as a billion hydrogen bombs can be produced in the biggest of events.
The big flares and the CMEs associated with it can create long lasting radiation storms that can harm satellites, communications systems, and even ground-based technologies and power grids when directed towards the Earth.
One of the instances of this case was when X-class flares on December 5 and December 6, 2006, triggered a CME interfering with GPS signals being sent to ground-based receivers.
The Halloween solar storms of 2003 resulted in this aurora visible in Mt. Airy, Maryland. Credit:
It is believed that with the synergy between the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), together with the Air Force Weather Agency (AFWA) of the United States , there will be a lookout, on the sun to monitor the occurrence of X-Class flares and the magnetic storms associated with them. Their monitoring and advanced warnings, many satellites and orbiting vehicles can be effectively protected from harm.
An X-class solar flare (X9.3) emitted on September 6, 2017, and captured by NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory in extreme ultraviolet light. Credit: NASA/GSFC/SDO