April 18, 2016 – The sun emitted a mid-level solar flare, peaking at 6:29 pm MDT on April 17, 2016. NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory, which watches the sun constantly, captured an image of the event.
Solar flares are powerful bursts of radiation. Harmful radiation from a flare cannot pass through Earth’s atmosphere to physically affect humans on the ground, but they can disturb the atmosphere in the layer where GPS and communications signals travel.
NOAA’s Space Weather Prediction Center in Boulder, Colorado, states that “R2 (moderate) radio blackouts were observed” during the peak of the flare. Such radio blackouts are only ongoing during the course of a flare, and so they have since subsided. NOAA’s Space Weather Prediction Center is the U.S. government’s official source for space weather forecasts, watches, warnings and alerts.
This flare is classified as an M6.7 class flare. M-class flares are a tenth the size of the most intense flares, the X-class flares. The number provides more information about its strength. An M2 is twice as intense as an M1, an M3 is three times as intense, etc.
This flare came from an area of complex magnetic activity on the sun – known as an active region, and in this case labeled Active Region 2529 – which has sported a large dark spot, called a sunspot, over the past several days. This sunspot has changed shape and size as it slowly made its way across the sun’s face over the past week and half. For much of that time, it was big enough to be visible from the ground without magnification and is currently large enough that almost five Earths could fit inside it. This sunspot will rotate out of our view over the right side of the sun by April 20, 2016. Scientists study such sunspots in order to better understand what causes them to sometimes erupt with solar flares.
NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory is designed to study the causes of solar variability and its impacts on Earth. The spacecraft’s long-term measurements give solar scientists in-depth information to help characterize the interior of the sun, the sun’s magnetic field, the hot plasma of the solar corona, and the density of radiation that creates the ionosphere of the planets. The information is used to create better forecasts of space weather needed to protect aircraft, satellites and astronauts living and working in space.
SDO includes three instruments: the Extreme Ultraviolet Variability Experiment (EVE) built in partnership with the University of Colorado at Boulder’s Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics (LASP), the Helioseismic and Magnetic Imager (HMI) built in partnership with Stanford University, and the Atmospheric Imaging Assembly (AIA) built in partnership with the Lockheed Martin Solar & Astrophysics Laboratory. Data collected by the spacecraft is made available as soon as possible after it is received.
Goddard built, operates and manages the SDO spacecraft for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington, D.C. SDO is the first mission of NASA’s Living with a Star Program.