A massive dark spot has appeared very rapidly on the surface of the sun this week.
Astronomers from NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, using the Solar Dynamics Observatory spacecraft launched in 2010, have been tracking the growth of the sunspot since it first appeared on Tuesday Feb. 19.
As of the evening of Feb. 20, the spot had grown large enough to hold six earths.
The astronomers report that the spot, due to its large size, is very unstable and will likely lead, as sunspots frequently do, to the release of a solar flare, as the bubble bursts.
If timed right, the solar flare could launch a Coronal Mass Ejection at the Earth, which could have a couple of effects:
On the bright side, literally, such solar activity could cause the spectacular magnetic light shows known as the Aurora Borealis and Aurora Australis, which occur mostly at the Earth’s north and south poles, and these would be visible much further from the poles than usual.
The University of Alaska Fairbanks’ Geophysical Institute and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration are both keeping an eye out for this possibility, and both offer ways to be notified if aurora activity could be expected in the northern hemisphere.
These groups are also watching because of the negative consequences of a possible solar storm: interference with our communications or electrical systems.
Obviously, most at risk are the satellites orbiting the planet, which are integral parts of everything from GPS navigation to satellite television.
If it's drastic enough, a solar flare impacting Earth could cause problems with our electronics on the ground.
Spaceweather.com reports a 45-percent chance of an M-class solar flare before Feb. 23, and a 15-percent chance of an X-class solar storm, the most intense class NASA assigns.