Tuesday, 24 July 2012

Solar Flares: What Does It Take to Be X-Class?

What Does It Take To Be An X Class Flare, 12th M-Class Flare From Sunspot 1515 Caused Temporary Radio Blackout. An R2 radio blackout can result in limited degradation of both high- and low-frequency radio communication and GPS signals 1 flare that peaked at 7:44 AM EDT on July 5, 2012. Early in the morning of July 5, 2012 there was an M6. 1 flare. This affects both high and low frequency radio waves alike. Radio blackouts are rated on a scale from R1 (minor) to R5 (extreme). The constant changes in the ionosphere change the paths of the radio waves as they move, thus degrading the information they carry. The image is shown in the 304 Angstrom wavelength, which is typically colorized in red. The Solar Dynamics Observatory (SDO) captured this image of the sun during an M6. Radio blackouts occur when the X-rays or extreme UV light from a flare disturb the layer of Earth's atmosphere known as the ionosphere, through which radio waves travel. This caused a moderate – classified as R2 on the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's space weather scale – radio blackout that has since subsided. Active Region 1515 has now spit out 12 M-class flares since July 3. It peaked at 7:44 AM EDT.

The same region has also produced numerous coronal mass ejections or CMEs. They have been observed and modeled by NASA's Space Weather Center (SWC) and are thought to be moving relatively slowly, traveling between 300 and 600 miles per second. Since the active region itself is so southerly in the sun, CMEs from this region are generally unlikely to impact Earth.

The strongest flares are classified as X-class, while M-class flares are the second strongest classification. Classified as an M6.1, this latest flare is a little over half the size of the weakest X-class flares.

What Does It Take To Be An X Class Flare

The most powerful flare measured with modern methods was in 2003, during the last solar maximum, and it was so powerful that it overloaded the sensors measuring it. That means more flares will be coming, some small and some big enough to send their radiation all the way to Earth. So an X is ten times an M and 100 times a C. The number of solar flares increases approximately every 11 years, and the sun is currently moving towards another solar maximum, likely in 2013. Similar to the Richter scale for earthquakes, each letter represents a 10-fold increase in energy output. The Solar and Heliospheric Observatory (SOHO) spacecraft captured this image of a solar flare as it erupted from the sun early on Tuesday, October 28, 2003. Solar flares are classified according to their strength. These flares are often associated with solar magnetic storms known as coronal mass ejections (CMEs). The smallest ones are A-class, followed by B, C, M and X, the largest. And then come the X-class flares. The smallest ones are A-class (near background levels), followed by B, C, M and X. Within each letter class there is a finer scale from 1 to 9. M-class flares can cause brief radio blackouts at the poles and minor radiation storms that might endanger astronauts. C-class and smaller flares are too weak to noticeably affect Earth. The sensors cut out at X28 The biggest flares are known as "X-class flares" based on a classification system that divides solar flares according to their strength. Although X is the last letter, there are flares more than 10 times the power of an X1, so X-class flares can go higher than 9. Solar flares are giant explosions on the sun that send energy, light and high speed particles into space.

The biggest X-class flares are by far the largest explosions in the solar system and are awesome to watch. Loops tens of times the size of Earth leap up off the sun's surface when the sun's magnetic fields cross over each other and reconnect. In the biggest events, this reconnection process can produce as much energy as a billion hydrogen bombs.

If they're directed at Earth, such flares and associated CMEs can create long lasting radiation storms that can harm satellites, communications systems, and even ground-based technologies and power grids. X-class flares on December 5 and December 6, 2006, for example, triggered a CME that interfered with GPS signals being sent to ground-based receivers.

NASA and NOAA – as well as the US Air Force Weather Agency (AFWA) and others -- keep a constant watch on the sun to monitor for X-class flares and their associated magnetic storms. With advance warning many satellites and spacecraft can be protected from the worst effects.

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