Sunspot AR3038, which went from 'big to enormous in 24 hours', has now grown further and is three times bigger than the Earth, Space.com reported. Astronomers are keen to see what sort of solar flare this sunspot will end up emitting, which has strayed away from predictions.
The exact cause of sunspots is unknown, but astronomers believe that electromagnetic flux concentration on the solar surface can cause a temporary disturbance to the convection processes. The result is a drop in temperature which makes the region relatively darker than its surroundings and is referred to as a sunspot.
The diameter of a sunspot can vary from a few miles to hundreds of thousands of miles and it may even be possible to spot one without a telescope. The AR3038 which was spotted earlier this week and was expected to burst, has kept growing bigger and bigger instead and is now three times the size of the Earth.
Sunspots and the solar cycle
Sunspots are expected to increase during the active phase of the solar cycle. Our Sun undergoes this cycle every 11 years, and it entered the active phase earlier this year. Sunspots and subsequent solar flares have increased ever since, with the Sun sending out its most powerful flare in the past five years in April.
NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory (SDO), which keeps an eye on the events of the solar surface, reported some flares in May as well but the month of June has seen a relative drop in significant activity.
Helio-scientist Dr. Alex C Young wrote on Twitter last week,
A WEEK OF SUN: The sun has still been mostly quiet from June 10 - 16. Lots of spots but not much activity. Three M flares, one with a nice CME that gave Earth a slight nudge. Wondering when we are going to start seeing the action? 🌞🤔🧐💥🤩 pic.twitter.com/G0D4R92c6s— Dr. C. Alex Young (@TheSunToday) June 17, 2022
Shortly after that, sunspot AR3038 caught the attention of the astronomers.
On June 20, as the sunspot AR3038 doubled in size it also gave off a C-class solar flare, Earthsky reported. While this is a relatively low-energy flare when compared to the flares that we witnessed around Easter, the activity of the sunspot hasn't ceded.
Instead, its diameter grew further over the next 24 hours, and the single sunspot could now neatly fit three Earths within itself. Scientists believe that the sunspot harbors M-class solar flare, which is 10 times more powerful than a C-class flare. Since the sunspot is facing the Earth, a solar flare emerging from its activity could send high solar winds toward the Earth, possibly today, June 23.
However, sunspot AR3038 hasn't really followed any predictions of the astronomers who had also expected it to burst two days ago. Instead, the sunspot grew further. This also goes to show how little we know about the activity on the solar surface and how it will turn out.
Even though humans on Earth are protected from solar flares by the planet's atmosphere, those out on missions in space do not enjoy the same privilege. High energy radiation from solar flares can even blackout radio communication. So, it is essential that we can accurately predict solar flares and missions like NASA's Parker Solar Probe are important and help us understand our Sun better.