Sunspot the size of Mars is turning towards Earth and massive solar flares could affect radio communications, GPS and power grids

  • An amateur astronomer spotted a massive sunspot on the western region 
  • AR2770 has a primary dark core the width of Mars and a several spotlets 
  • The spot is turning towards Earth and has emitted B-class flares  

A massive sunspot observed on the sun is turning towards Earth and is expected to increase in size over the next few days.

The area, dubbed AR2770, has a ‘primary dark core’ the width of Mars and a number of crater-size ‘spotlets’ littering its surface.

The sunspot is a member of Solar Cycle 25, the new 11-year-long period of electromagnetic activity, and was observed crackling with minor flares.

Although AR2770 has yet to produce ‘killer’ solar flares, experts are keeping a close watch in a bid to prepare for such an event that could knock out electrical operations and facilities on our planet.

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A massive sunspot observed on the sun is turning towards Earth and is expected to increase in size over the next few days. The area, dubbed AR2770, has a ‘primary dark core’ the width of Mars and a number of crater-size ‘spotlets’ littering its surface

The new sunspot was observed by amateur astronomer Martin Wise, who snapped the image from Trenton, Florida.

‘This sunspot was an easy target for my solar telescope,’ said Wise noting he used an 8-inch scope with safe solar filters to capture the picture.

AR2770 is said to have emitted a number of B-class flares, the lowest class of solar flares, which have sent minor waves of ionization through Earth’s atmosphere, Space Weather reports.

However, the spot is growing and increased activity is possible over the next few days that may produce more intense solar flares.

The new sunspot was observed by amateur astronomer Martin Wise, who snapped the image from Trenton, Florida. According to NASA, ‘Solar flares are a sudden explosion of energy caused by tangling, crossing or reorganizing of magnetic field lines near sunspots’

According to NASA, ‘Solar flares are a sudden explosion of energy caused by tangling, crossing or reorganizing of magnetic field lines near sunspots.’

Predicting when solar activity is set to increase could potentially protect astronauts in orbit, as well as preventing technologies like satellites from being destroyed.

In June, scientists with the University of Warwick unveiled a new sun clock that can better calculate the switch on and off times of the sun.

Lead author Professor Sandra Chapman said: ‘Large events can happen at any time, but are much more likely around solar maximum. By cleanly ordering the observations we find that in 150 years of geomagnetic activity at earth, only a few percent occur during these quiet conditions.’

‘The ability to estimate the risk of a future solar superstorm occurring is vital for space and ground-based technologies that are particularly sensitive to space weather, such as satellites, communications system, power distribution and aviation.

‘If you have a system sensitive to space weather you need to know how likely a big event is, and it is useful to know when we are in a quiet period as it allows maintenance and other activities that make systems temporarily more fragile.’

The team used sunspot observations over the past 200 years and mapped the sun’s activity over 18 solar cycles to a standardized 11 year cycle – the sun starts a new solar cycle ever 11 years.

Predicting when solar activity is set to increase could potentially protect astronauts in orbit, as well as preventing technologies like satellites from being destroyed. In June, scientists with the University of Warwick unveiled a new sun clock that can better calculate the switch on and off times of the sun

Halfway through the cycle, solar activity increases that produces more flareups and radiation – all of which can be measured by sunspots.

The team used the daily sunspot number record available since 1818 to map solar activity, allowing them to see the precise switch on and switch off times of solar activity.

Once the clock is constructed from sunspot observations it can be used to order observations of solar activity and space weather.

‘Scientists spend their lives trying to read the book of nature. Sometimes we create a new way to transform the data and what appeared to be messy and complicated is suddenly beautifully simple,’ said Chapman.

‘In this instance, our sun clock method showed clear ‘switch on’ and ‘switch off’ times demarcating quiet and active intervals for space weather for the first time.’

SOLAR STORMS PRESENT A CLEAR DANGER TO ASTRONAUTS AND CAN DAMAGE SATELLITES

Solar storms, or solar activity, can be divided into four main components that can have impacts on Earth:  

  • Solar flares: A large explosion in the sun’s atmosphere. These flares are made of photons that travel out directly from the flare site. Solar flares impact Earth only when they occur on the side of the sun facing Earth.  
  • Coronal Mass Ejections (CME’s): Large clouds of plasma and magnetic field that erupt from the sun. These clouds can erupt in any direction, and then continue on in that direction, plowing through solar wind. These clouds only cause impacts to Earth when they’re aimed at Earth. 
  • High-speed solar wind streams: These come from coronal holes on the sun, which form anywhere on the sun and usually only when they are closer to the solar equator do the winds impact Earth. 
  • Solar energetic particles: High-energy charged particles thought to be released primarily by shocks formed at the front of coronal mass ejections and solar flares. When a CME cloud plows through solar wind, solar energetic particles can be produced and because they are charged, they follow the magnetic field lines between the Sun and Earth. Only charged particles that follow magnetic field lines that intersect Earth will have an impact. 

While these may seem dangerous, astronauts are not in immediate danger of these phenomena because of the relatively low orbit of manned missions.

However, they do have to be concerned about cumulative exposure during space walks.

This photo shows the sun’s coronal holes in an x-ray image. The outer solar atmosphere, the corona, is structured by strong magnetic fields, which when closed can cause the atmosphere to suddenly and violently release bubbles or tongues of gas and magnetic fields called coronal mass ejections

The damage caused by solar storms 

Solar flares can damage satellites and have an enormous financial cost.

The charged particles can also threaten airlines by disturbing Earth’s magnetic field.

Very large flares can even create currents within electricity grids and knock out energy supplies.

When Coronal Mass Ejections strike Earth they cause geomagnetic storms and enhanced aurora.

They can disrupt radio waves, GPS coordinates and overload electrical systems.

A large influx of energy could flow into high voltage power grids and permanently damage transformers.

This could shut off businesses and homes around the world. 

Source: NASA – Solar Storm and Space Weather 

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