From its perch in space, this satellite also peers back at the sun, and has recently captured views of solar flares — explosions of light from the sun’s surface. This activity has ramped up as our medium-sized star has entered a more active state. Don’t worry — these powerful bursts from the sun are normal, though they can pose huge risks to our electrical grid and communication infrastructure.
Similar to storm seasons or climate patterns on Earth, the sun experiences a cycle of weather. The sun’s lasts for 11 years. During this pattern, solar activity increases for some 5.5 years, then decreases, then picks up again.
“It’s the space equivalent of hurricane season. We’re coming into another one,” Mark Miesch, a scientist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Space Weather Prediction Center, told Mashable last year.
In this current cycle, solar activity will peak around July 2025 (aka the “solar maximum”). So expect some fireworks. For example, NOAA recently reported that on Dec. 14 the sun emitted a particularly powerful solar flare — the strongest of the current cycle and likely the most potent since 2017. It triggered temporary radio blackouts in the U.S. and across the Americas.
Mashable Light Speed
Below are views of recent flares captured by the GOES-East satellite. GOES-East orbits above Earth’s equator at a speed equal to our planet’s rotation, allowing it to stay fixed in the same place (also known as “geostationary orbit”).
The sun doesn’t just emit solar flares. It also shoots out “coronal mass ejections,” or CMEs: These occur when the sun ejects a mass of super hot gas (plasma). “It’s like scooping up a piece of the sun and ejecting it into space,” NOAA’s Miesch explained. Sometimes solar flares trigger CMEs, and sometimes they don’t. What’s more, there are “solar energetic particle” events, or SEPs These are essentially solar flares with lots of energetic particles. They’re especially dangerous to astronauts and satellites.
Fortunately, our atmosphere protects us from things like X-rays and energetic particles emitted from the sun. Meanwhile, Earth’s potent magnetic field (generated by Earth’s metallic core) deflects many particles from solar storms and shields us from the sun’s relentless solar wind, a continuous flow of particles (electrons and protons) from our star.
Space weather scientists use a number of spacecraft, satellites, and ground telescopes to detect potentially damaging solar events, and to better predict when they might happen. A spectrum of potential hazards, ranging in seriousness from briefly problematic to extremely damaging, can ensue when the likes of a strong solar flare or CME hits Earth.
Infamously, a potent CME in 1989 knocked out power to millions in Québec, Canada. The CME hit Earth’s magnetic field on March 12 of that year, and then, wrote NASA astronomer Sten Odenwald, “Just after 2:44 a.m. on March 13, the currents found a weakness in the electrical power grid of Quebec. In less than two minutes, the entire Quebec power grid lost power. During the 12-hour blackout that followed, millions of people suddenly found themselves in dark office buildings and underground pedestrian tunnels, and in stalled elevators.”
Our sun, a giver of light and energy, makes life on Earth possible. But scientists stay wary of its powerful outbursts.