A powerful solar flare could be heading toward us in the next few days

It could erupt anytime now.
Ameya Paleja
solar flare
3D model of the Sun

Thomas Faull/iStock 

A massive sunspot with the potential to send out powerful solar flares is pointed straight at Earth, Forbes has reported.

Solar flares send out intense bursts of electromagnetic radiation from the Sun. They are caused when areas of the Sun develop strong magnetic fields that temporarily halt the process of convection on the Sun. The temperature of the area drops as a result of this, and is visibly darker than the rest of the solar surface. It is, therefore, called a sunspot.

At times, sunspots can even grow to sizes that can occupy multiple planets of the solar system before dying down without much to show for it. Other times though, they give out intense bursts of electromagnetic radiation, whose intensity can vary significantly.

Classes of solar flares

Depending on the radiation released, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) classifies solar flares into five categories. Classes A, B, and C are flares of relatively low intensity, while M class is used to designate flares of moderate intensity. X class flares are 10 times more powerful than the M class solar flares.

Each class is further divided into the logarithmic scale of 1 through 9, except X class, which continues further. X class flares are mostly rare, but when they do occur, they tend to have high number of intensities such as one in 2003, which was estimated to be of intensity X40. The instrumentation developed so far can only accurately measure solar flares up to the intensity of X16.

Sunspot AR3089

According to NOAA, Sunspot AR3089 has been developing for some time and has now developed a delta-class magnetic field. This means that the sunspot has the potential to let out an X-class solar flare anytime.

Since the sunspot is pointed directly toward the Earth, we would receive the full blast of magnetic radiation. It is also possible that some of the particulate matter from the Sun be also let out along with this flare, which scientists call a coronal mass ejection (CME). If either of these events were to occur, we would be protected by the Earth's atmosphere.

However, spacecraft that provide communication and navigational services would not be so lucky and can even face critical damage, as SpaceX has learned the hard way.

The sunspot is currently mellow, and scientists at the NOAA predict that the chance of an X-class solar flare is just five percent over the next three days. However, we haven't perfected the science to predict solar flares yet, and there is a good chance that such a high-intensity flare or even a CME can head toward us.

Even if sunspot AR3089 goes off without much fanfare, a large hole in the solar atmosphere is leaking out gaseous material that could send a stream of solar wind on September 4, Spaceweather.com reported. If a solar storm materializes, auroras could be seen in the U.S. as far south as New York and Idaho.