Solar Flare: Northern Lights, Delayed Rocket Launch and Other Effects [Update]

Solar Flare


Update:  The X1.2-class solar flare that erupted earlier this week is running behind its predicted schedule, according to an update from NOAA’s Space Weather Prediction Center.  “The CME, originally expected to arrive around 0800 UTC (3:00 a.m. EST) today, January 9, is now slightly overdue,” states the update.  It is unclear how much it is overdue, but the prediction of a January 9 arrival date still appears to stand.  The original article continues below.

On Tuesday a solar flare, the first major one of the new year, erupted from a massive sunspot reported to be seven times larger than the Earth.  It came following a series of mid-level sun storms in preceding days, with the event peaking at 6:32 p.m. GMT.  With this solar flare, however, comes both good news and bad news for those on Earth.

When the eruption occurred, a piece of the sun’s atmosphere was blown off (called a coronal mass ejection or CME), which is now on its way toward Earth, according to Jeffrey Newmark, a solar physicist with NASA.  When it arrives on Thursday, it can create many effects on our planet.

One of these effects, which is good news for many, is the expansion of the viewing field of the aurora borealis further south, perhaps as far down as Colorado and Illinois.  The aurora borealis, also known as the northern lights, occurs when the atoms in the Earth’s high-altitude atmosphere collide with the highly energetic charged particles coming from the sun.  It produces a beautiful display of shimmering green light, most commonly only experienced further north.  Rarely, the dazzling display of light can take on red or blue hues as well.  Joe Kunches, a space weather forecaster, says that the best viewing of this event will most likely be Thursday evening going into Friday morning, if weather permits.

Unfortunately solar flares also bring bad news.  When they are intense enough, they can disrupt the Earth’s atmosphere in the layer where GPS and communications signals travel.  This can cause problems with communications around the globe for as long as the flare lasts, which could range from minutes to hours.  It can also affect spacecraft, power grids, GPS satellites and even planes that are flying near the Earth’s poles.

Another problem which the current solar flare has created is that it has caused the delay of a private cargo ship to the International Space Station.   The flight, from a company called Orbital Sciences, was scheduled to deliver cargo with its Antares rocket and Cygnus spacecraft.  However, the decision was made on the launchpad to scrap the flight because an excessive level of radiation emanating from the sun could harm the rocket’s electronic systems.

However, the flare does not pose any threat to the astronauts and cosmonauts aboard the International Space Station, according to NASA.  It is designed to withstand such assaults.  Nor can it hurt people and animals on the Earth’s surface.  The radiation is not capable of passing through the Earth’s atmosphere and reaching the ground.  However, according to forecasters, there will probably be strong geomagnetic storm conditions on both January 9 and 10, which may disrupt communications and travel.

The most recent solar flare is an X1.2-class flare.  The “X” indicates that it is considered to be the most intense type of flare, while the number gives a further description of its strength.  An X1.2 class flare is at the lower end of this spectrum.

The sun is currently in an active phase of its 11-year solar weather cycle.  The current cycle began in the year 2008.

By Nancy Schimelpfening


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