2014-01-08 12:30 UTC G3 (Strong) Geomagnetic Storming Expected

Sun unleashes massive solar flare SEVEN times the size of the Earth

SWPC Forecasters are anticipating G3 (Strong) Geomagnetic Storm conditions to occur on January 9 and 10. The source of this disturbance is a fairly fast Earth-directed coronal mass ejection (CME) launched from centrally-located Region 1944 at 1832 UTC (1:32 p.m. EST) on January 7. Full evaluation and modeling of this event has refined the forecast and indicates a fairly direct interaction with Earth, with the WSA-Enlil model putting arrival mid-morning UTC on January 9 (very early morning EST). In addition, the S2 (Moderate) Solar Radiation Storm associated with this event is currently near, but below, the S3 (Strong) threshold, with values leveling off at this time. At the Sun, Region 1944 remains well-placed and energetic. Updates here as this event progresses.

STORMY SPACE WEATHER: Giant sunspot AR1944 is directly facing Earth and crackling with solar flares. Yesterday, Jan. 7th, an X1-class explosion in the sunspot’s magnetic canopy hurled a CME in our direction. Sky watchers shoud be alert for auroras on Jan. 9th when the cloud arrives. NOAA forecasters estimate a 60% chance of strong geomagnetic storms. Aurora alerts: text, voice.

The X1-flare that hurled the CME toward Earth also accelerated a swarm of high-energy protons in our direction. Effects of the proton fusillade are visible in this Jan. 7th coronagraph movie from the Solar and Heliospheric Observatory (SOHO):

The “snow” in this movie is caused by solar protons striking the spacecraft’s CCD camera. A veritable blizzard of speckles develops as the CME emerges into full view. Indeed, many of the protons are accelerated by shock waves at the forefront of the expanding cloud.

This ongoing radiation storm ranks S2 on NOAA storm scales. It is rich in “hard” protons with more than 100 MeV of energy, which accounts for the snowiness of the SOHO coronagraph images. According to NOAA, “passengers and crew in high-flying aircraft at high latitudes may be exposed to elevated radiation risk” during such a storm.

The source of all this activity is AR1944, one of the biggest sunspots of the past decade. The sprawling active region is more than 200,000 km wide and contains dozens of dark cores. Its primary core, all by itself, is large enough to swallow Earth three times over. To set the scale of the behemoth, Karzaman Ahmad inserted a picture of Earth in the corner of this picture he took on Jan. 7th from the Langkawi National Observatory in Malaysia:

More flares are in the offing. The sunspot has an unstable ‘beta-gamma-delta’ magnetic field that is likely to erupt again today. NOAA forecasters estimate an 80% chance of M-class flares and a 50% chance of X-flares on Jan. 8th. Solar flare alerts: text, voice.

X1-flarehurled the CME toward Earth

Sun Unleashes 1st Major Solar Flare of 2014 (Video)

Update for 9:30 a.m. ET: Tuesday’s massive solar flare has forced the commercial spaceflight company Orbital Sciences to postpone the planned launch of a private cargo mission to the International Space Station today. Read the full story here: Huge Solar Flare Delays Private Rocket Launch to Space Station

A massive solar flare erupted from the sun on Tuesday (Jan. 7), rising up from what appears to be one of the largest sunspot groups seen on the star’s surface in a decade, NASA officials say.

NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory captured a video of the huge solar flare as it developed, showing it as an intense burst of radiation from a colossal sunspot region known as AR1944. The sunspot group — which is currently in the middle of the sun as viewed from Earth — is “one of the largest sunspots seen in the last 10 years,” NASA officials wrote in a statement. It is as wide as seven Earths, they added.

Tuesday’s big flare was an X1.2-class solar event on the scale used to classify sun storms. It occurred at 1:32 p.m. EST (1832 GMT) and came just hours after an M7.2-class flare. Space weather officials at the the Space Weather Prediction Center overseen by NOAA are expecting the flare to spark geomagnetic storms in Earth’s magnetic field when a wave of super-hot solar plasma associated with the flare – known as a coronal mass ejection – reaches Earth in the next few days. [Photos: The Biggest Solar Flares of 2014]

“This is the first significant flare of 2014, and follows on the heels of mid-level flare earlier in the day,” NASA spokeswoman Karen Fox of the agency’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., wrote in a statement. “Each flare was centered over a different area of a large sunspot group currently situated at the center of the sun, about half way through its 14-day journey across the front of the disk along with the rotation of the sun.”
This labeled image taken by SDO's Helioseismic and Magnetic Imager shows the location of two active regions on the sun, labeled AR1944 and AR1943, which straddle a giant sunspot complex. A Jan. 7, 2014, X1.2-class flare emanated from an area closer to AR1
This labeled image taken by SDO’s Helioseismic and Magnetic Imager shows the location of two active regions on the sun, labeled AR1944 and AR1943, which straddle a giant sunspot complex. A Jan. 7, 2014, X1.2-class flare emanated from an area closer to AR1943.

X-class solar flares are the most powerful solar storms on the sun. Mid-level storms are dubbed M-class events and can supercharge Earth’s northern lights displays, with weaker C-class flares rounding out the top three.

When aimed directly at Earth, the strongest X-class solar flares can pose a risk to astronauts in orbit and interrupt communications and navigation satellite operations.

Tuesday’s solar flare did force the commercial spaceflight company Orbital Sciences to delay the launch of its first Cygnus cargo mission to the International Space Station from NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility on Wallops Island, Va.

NASA officials told today that the crew of the International Space Station will not have to take measures to shelter themselves from the solar flare’s radiation effects. There are currently six astronauts living on the station as part of the outpost’s Expedition 38 crew. The team includes three Russian cosmonauts, two NASA astronauts and one Japanese astronaut.

The sun is currently in an active phase of its 11-year solar cycle. The current cycle, called Solar Cycle 24, began in 2008.

Editor’s Note: This story was updated at 9:26 a.m. EST to include new details about the effects of the solar flare for astronauts on the International Space Station and its delay of an Orbital Sciences Cygnus cargo mission to the station from Wallops Island, Va.

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