Science

Sun Hurls X-Class CME Towards Earth: Should We Worry?

By Randell Suba , May 20, 2013 10:55 AM EDT
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The sun has been throwing tantrums in the past week, and maybe it has something to do with the release of the movie "Star Trek Into Darkness," or maybe not. The activities started late Tuesday when a single sunspot unleashed four massive solar flares and continued through Friday sending billions of charged particles toward Earth at speeds of millions of miles per hour.

What are X-Class Solar Flares

These solar eruptions also known as coronal mass ejections or CMEs can affect electronic systems, disrupt satellites, GPS navigations, and power grids. What experts observed in the past few days are known as X-class CMEs, meaning they are the biggest flares known to man.

Solar flares are classified according to strength. The smallest ones are called A-Class followed by B-Class, C-Class, M-Class, and X-Class. The classification can be likened to the Richter Scale used for earthquakes and that each letter represents an increase of 10 folds in terms of energy output. The X-Class flares are 10 times the strength of M and about a 100 times stronger than C-class eruptions. X-Class eruptions are further classified with numbers to signify their intensity.

When The Solar Flares and CMEs Occurred

The gigantic solar flares were observed starting May 12 at around 10 p.m. EDT. This X1.7-class flare came with a CME and is the first X-class flare for 2013.

On May 13, scientists observed an X2.8-class flare at around 12:05 p.m. EDT concurrent with another CME that was strong enough to disrupt satellites. The CME was not directed toward the earth so it did not cause any problem. An X3.2 solar flare was observed at 9:11 p.m. EDT on the same day.

The solar activity continued on May 14 with the sun throwing an X1.2 flare at 9:48 p.m. EDT. This eruption caused a radio blackout tagged as R3 or strong by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration or NOOA. It also came with a non-earth-directed CME.

On May 17 at 5:24 a.m. EDT, an earth-directed CME was observed by Solar Dynamics Observatory of NASA. The solar particles can take 24 to 72 hours to reach Earth.

Should Earth Worry

The scientists say that these solar materials cannot pass through the atmosphere of the Earth and affect humans.

Solar activities have begun to ramp up and are approaching a solar maximum. This usually occurs roughly every 11 years. The solar flares' explosive heat cannot reach the globe but the energy particles and electromagnetic radiation can.

Solar flares can reach the upper atmosphere and disrupt signal transmissions of satellites orbiting the planet. Coronal mass ejections are far more disruptive because of the energy particles that are hurled towards the earth. The electromagnetic fluctuations can reach the ground and blow out power grids. This can be a big problem when everything almost relies on technology that needs power to run.

Solar flares and CMEs can be compared to hurricanes and the only way the planet can be protected is by having advanced information about them so necessary precautions can be implemented.

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