Solar flares happen all the time. What doesn’t happen all the time is one so superpowered that we haven’t seen anything close in a decade.
Flares are classified on something like a cosmic Richter scale by letters A, B, C, M and X. Energy output increases tenfold with each letter, so you can guess which one is maximum strength. This X-class flare blasted from the sun at an astonishing X9.3 according to the NOAA's Space Weather Prediction Center (SWPC). If that sounds like something out of X-Men, Marvel’s mutants only wish they had powers like this.
When the solar magnetic field (from which sunspots emerge) twists itself enough, the heat on the solar surface rockets to unreal levels as massive amounts of energy are shot into space. This X-class sunstorm and the slightly less powerful one that preceded it reached all the way to Earth. Think high-frequency radio blackouts and a serious disruption in the type of low-frequency communication used to navigate. Solar flares can also ignite radiation storms in our upper atmosphere. When especially huge flares like these erupt, the sun often spews plasma in a coronal mass ejection (CME).
You do not want a star vomiting plasma in the general direction of your planet.
"It was accompanied by radio emissions that suggest there's a potential for a CME," SWPC space scientist Rob Steenburgh said of the monster flare. "However, we have to wait until we get some coronagraph imagery that would capture that event for a definitive answer."
NASA and the ESA’s joint Solar and Heliospheric Observatory confirmed the CME suspicion later, though it took NOAA analysts a while to determine whether it was firing energy directly towards Earth. It was.
At seven Earths wide by nine Earths tall, it’s hardly surprising that the sun’s second largest sunspot would incite a solar flare of this magnitude. The M-class solar flare it emitted right before those two epic ones was a warning sign. While the one positive of sunstorms is that they can cause really awesome Instagram-worthy auroras, we’re better off having our magnetosphere left alone. Satellites, power lines and communications much more important than your smartphone could end up glitching and even dying.
Here’s the irony. The sun is actually at the solar minimum, so you would think something like this would be impossible.
"We are heading toward solar minimum, but the interesting thing about that is you can still have events, they're just not as frequent," Steenburgh dispelled that myth. "We're not having X-flares every day for a week, for instance — the activity is less frequent, but no less potentially strong. These events are just part of living with a star."
Welcome to space.