The blast was classified as an X1 class flare, peaking at 4:25 p.m. EDT. Flares are grouped by intensity into C, M and X class flares with X flares being the most powerful. Each letter is ten times more powerful than the previous, so an X-flare is ten times more powerful than an M flare and 100 times as intense as a C flare.
While an X1 is a significant flare, flares up to X28 have been recorded, which is the point at which sensors were overloaded during the most powerful flare in 2003, according to NASA.
Solar flares are bursts of energetic particles that typically erupt from sunspots on the sun’s surface. These blasts of radiation travel at the speed of light, arriving at Earth in less than ten minutes, but our planet’s magnetosphere deflects most of the energetic blast from reaching the surface.
However, flares can disrupt radio and satellite communications briefly over the part of the globe that is in the line of fire, including navigation systems like GPS. In the most extreme cases, flares and the bursts of charged plasma called coronal mass ejections (CMEs) that often accompany them can impact electrical equipment and grids on the ground.
The sun let off two strong M flares as well over the weekend along with multiple CMEs, which move significantly slower than the particles from flares. The CMEs are expected to reach the planet as soon as Tuesday and could cause a geomagnetic storm above Earth, according to NOAA’s Space Weather Prediction Center.
Such space weather can be damaging to spacecraft in orbit and may give astronauts on the International Space Station a little dose of radiation. It also boosts the aurora borealis and aurora australis, making them potentially more hyperactive and visible at lower latitudes.
All this could be just the beginning, too. The sun is moving towards the peak of activity in its 11-year cycle of sunspot activity. Many space watchers forecast a growing number of sunspots and solar flares between now and some time in the next few years before the activity begins to fade again.
By some accounts, this current solar cycle phase that is building towards what’s called a solar maximum has already been more hyperactive than expected and may be one for the record books.
That’s good news for fans of the Northern Lights, but might lead to some serious connectivity and power problems for civilization, especially given that it comes at a time when we’re more dependent on satellite communications than ever before.