Blackout-causing solar flares could make their way to Earth, evidence shows

Turbulent space weather ahead.
Ameya Paleja
The Sun is approaching the peak of its solar cyclecokada/ iStock

A giant sunspot and filaments on the solar surface have astronomers worried about possible Earth-directed solar flares and coronal mass ejections (CMEs) that could lead to blackouts, New York Post reported

Last month, astronomers were keen to see the developments of sunspot AR3038 which went from 'big to enormous' in a matter of hours and grew to a size that was three times that of the Earth. With the Sun now in an active phase of its 11-year cycle, there is a lot of activity on its surface that is keeping astronomers glued to the skies.

The most recent addition to this list is the sunspot AR3055. 

What do we know about Sunspot AR3055?

According to New York Post, the sunspot has now grown 6,100 miles (9,816 km) wide and is directly facing the Earth. Astronomers aren't really sure whether the sunspot is the result of a merger of sunspots or if it evolved into this size rapidly on its own. 

It is not surprising that astronomers know so little. Even after so many Earth-based observatories look at the Sun, a geomagnetic storm still hit the Earth at a million miles an hour without anybody picking it up. This was because the storm was caused by a buildup of plasma between the slow and fast-moving streams of solar winds and not due to the eruption of a sunspot. 

Irregular tubes of magnetism seen on solar surface
Image credit: Francois Rouviere/ Spaceweather.com

According to the latest updates on SpaceWeather.com, the solar surface is now showing large filaments of magnetism. Each of these filaments is approximately the distance between the Earth and the Moon, i.e., 238,880 miles (384,400 km). Like sunspots, these regions are also relatively cooler than the solar surface and hence appear darker. However, each filament, if held up in the night sky, would glow brighter than the full Moon, the website said. 

What does that mean for us?

Solar filaments are also known to be highly unstable. However, on this occasion, they seem to have been holding themselves together for days now. Sooner or later, they are expected to erupt and hurl some solar debris toward the Earth. 

Spaceweather.com predicts a minor G1-class geomagnetic storm to head towards Earth on the morning of July 13th. However, this storm is likely to be the result of two smaller sunspots and not the filaments. While sunspot AR3038 gave off a C-class solar flare, AR3055 is expected to produce a relatively powerful M-class flare that could result in radio blackouts for a few minutes. We do not know yet what the filaments are capable of. 

Last week, a paper published in the journal Astronomy and Astrophysics suggested a new model to predict the strength of the solar cycle to help us prepare for the worst fallout from such events. With the solar cycle peak approaching in 2023, we can only hope that this cycle is not worse than the other cycles we have seen before. 

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