Dec 15, 2023 - Science

Sun's strongest solar flare in years knocks out radio frequencies

NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory captured this image of a solar flare – as seen in the bright flash in the upper right – on Dec. 14. The image shows a subset of extreme ultraviolet light that highlights the extremely hot material in flares, and which is colorized in teal.

NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory captured this image of a solar flare (the bright flash) Thursday showing a subset of extreme ultraviolet light that highlights the extremely hot material in flares, and which is colorized in teal. Photo: NASA/SDO

The Sun sent out a monster solar flare of high-energy radiation that NASA captured on Thursday in what NOAA Space Weather said was "likely one of the largest" such events ever recorded.

Why it matters: These powerful bursts of energy "can impact radio communications, electric power grids, navigation signals, and pose risks to spacecraft and astronauts," per a NASA statement. Radio frequency blackouts were reported across the U.S. after this one.

A screenshot of a NOAA Space Weather tweet saying, in part: "This is likely one of the largest solar radio events ever recorded. Radio communication interference with aircraft were reported by multiple NWS Center Weather Service Units (CWSU) co-located at FAA facilities."
Photo: NOAA Space Weather/X
  • Although rare, these large bursts of plasma from the Sun, known as extreme coronal mass ejections (CME), could cause a months-long blackout on Earth, billions of dollars in damage and harm satellites.
  • A Lancaster University study published Monday found these solar storms can also cause errors on railways, switching train signals from red to green in "the worst case scenario."

The big picture: The Sun's activity is measured in 11-year cycles and flares are classified by their range and strength, from the weakest, B class, to C, M and the strongest, X.

  • NOAA scientists determined Thursday's X-class flare as not only the largest of the current Solar Cycle 25, but also the biggest since September 2017.
  • CMEs can supercharge the auroras and this event has raised the possibility of people in New England seeing the northern lights, CBS News reports.

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