A sunspot nearly triple the size of Earth is within firing range of our planet, and may send out medium-class flares in the near future.
A sunspot pointing toward Earth has the potential to cause solar flare, but experts told it’s far from unusual and eased concerns over how flares would affect the Blue Planet.
“The fast-growing sunspot has doubled in size in only 24 hours,” Phillips added, noting that the magnetic field surrounding it has the potential to blast M-class solar flares toward our planet.
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Active Region 3038, or AR3038, has been growing over the past week, said Rob Steenburgh, acting lead of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Space Weather Forecast Office. The sunspot’s size and growth rate are fairly normal, he said.
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Should the sunspot blast out a coronal mass ejection, or CME, of charged particles that faces our planet, it’s possible those particles will interact with our magnetic field and create colorful lights in our atmosphere, known as auroras.
Sunspots appear darker because they are cooler than other parts of the sun’s surface, according to NASA. Sunspots are cooler because they form where strong magnetic fields prevent heat within the sun from reaching its surface.
Solar flare, which typically rise from sunspots, are “a sudden explosion of energy caused by tangling, crossing or reorganizing of magnetic field lines near sunspots,” NASA said.
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However, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA’s) Space Weather Prediction Center, which monitors solar flare and other outbursts, has not issued any current aurora alerts for Earth.
“You can think of it like the twisting of rubber bands,” Steenburgh said. “If you have a couple of rubber bands twisting around on your finger, they eventually get twisted too much, and they break. The difference with magnetic fields is that they reconnect. And when they reconnect, it’s in that process that a flare is generated.”
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The sun has been particularly active this spring, sending out many M-class and X-class (the strongest class) flares as activity grows in the regular 11-year cycle of sunspots.
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The larger and more complex a sunspot becomes, the higher the likelihood is for solar flare, Steenburgh said.
The sunspot has doubled in size each day for the past three days and is about 2.5 times the size of Earth, C. Alex Young, associate director for science in the Heliophysics Science Division at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, said in an email.
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The AR3038 sunspot has caused C flares, Steenburgh said. Although there have been no M or X flare from this area, he said there is a potential for more intense flares in the next week or so.
That’s why both NASA and NOAA monitor the sun all the time. Additionally, NASA’s Parker Solar Probe mission is flying very close to the sun periodically to learn more about the origins of sunspots and to better understand the space weather the sun creates.