Solar Flare Ionizes European Skies

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Obviously frustrated by the headline-grabbing news of a quasi-potential Higgs boson discovery, the sun exploded with a headline-grabber of its own this morning.

At 10:52 UT, active region 1515 (AR1515) unleashed a M5.6-class solar flare bathing the Earth’s atmosphere with X-ray and extreme ultraviolet radiation. At that energy, the flare wasn’t that far from becoming an X-class flare — the most powerful variety of solar eruption.

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The flare’s radiation isn’t harmful to us on the ground, but it did have a dramatic impact on the upper atmosphere, sending waves of ionization through the ionosphere, over 60 kilometers (37 miles) above the surface. This ionization can trigger sudden ionospheric disturbances (or SIDs for short) that can severely impact global communications.

As reported by Spaceweather.com, Rob Stemmes of the Polar Light Center in Lofoten, Norway, detected a powerful SID propagate over Europe shortly after the flare erupted on the surface of the sun.

Solar flares occur in active regions above the sun’s photosphere (colloquially known as the “solar surface”) where intense regions of magnetic activity erupt through the sun’s upper layers — sunspots can often be observed in these regions.

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Active sunspot regions are ripe for huge arches of magnetism to cross, break and reconnect. Magnetic reconnection is akin to an elastic band snapping, but when solar magnetic fields do this, vast amounts of energy can be released, accelerating energetic solar plasma, generating powerful radiation. In today’s event, AR1515 was facing Earth, exposing the ionosphere to the flare.

Image: NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory (SDO) watches AR1515 crackle with flare activity only minutes after the M5.6-class solar flare was unleashed. Credit: NASA/SDO