A gigantic sunspot has swelled to twice the size of Earth, doubling its diameter in 24 hours, and it’s pointed straight at us.
The sunspot, called AR3038, has increased to 2.5 times Earththe size of the sunspot – making the sunspot about 19,800 miles, or 31,900 kilometers in diameter – from Sunday (June 19) to Monday evening (June 20), according to Spaceweather.coma website that tracks news about solar flares, geomagnetic storms, and other cosmic weather events.
Sunspots are dark spots on Sun, where powerful magnetic fields, created by the flow of electrical charges from the solar plasma, knot together before suddenly breaking apart. The resulting release of energy triggers bursts of radiation called solar flares and generates explosive jets of solar material called coronal mass ejections (CME).
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“Yesterday, sunspot AR3038 was large. Today, it’s huge. The fast-growing sunspot doubled in size in just 24 hours,” Spaceweather.com reported. “AR3038 has an unstable ‘beta-gamma’ magnetic field which contains energy for class M [medium-sized] solar flares, and it faces Earth directly.”
When a solar flare hits the Earth’s upper atmosphere, the flare X-rays and ultraviolet radiation ionize atoms, which makes it impossible for high-frequency radio waves to bounce and creates a so-called radio blackout. Radio blackouts occur in sunlit areas of the Earth while an eruption is in progress; these failures are classified from R1 to R5 according to their increasing severity.
In April and May, two solar flares caused R3 outages over the Atlantic Ocean, Australia and Asia, Live Science previously reported. Because solar flares travel at the speed of light, they take just 8 minutes to reach us, at an average distance of about 93 million miles (150 million kilometers).
If an Earth-facing sunspot forms near the Sun’s equator (where AR3038 is), it usually takes just under two weeks to cross the Sun so that it is no longer facing the Sun. Earth, according to SpaceWeatherLive. Currently, AR3038 lies slightly north of the solar equator and is a little more than halfthe Earth will therefore remain in its line of sight for a few more days.
Despite its alarmingly rapid growth, the giant sunspot is less scary than it looks. The flares it will most likely produce are M-class solar flares, which “typically cause brief radio outages that affect Earth’s polar regions”, as well as minor radiation storms, the European Space Agency written in a blog post. M-class flares are the most common type of solar flare. Although the sun occasionally releases huge X-class flares (the strongest category) with the potential to cause high frequency power outages on the side of the Earth that is exposed to the flare, these flares are seen much less often than smaller solar flares.
Sunspots can also spit solar matter. On planets that have strong magnetic fields, like Earth, the barrage of solar debris from CMEs is absorbed by our magnetic field, unleashing powerful geomagnetic storms. During these storms, the Earth’s magnetic field is slightly compressed by the waves of highly energetic particles, which stream along magnetic field lines near the poles and agitate molecules in the atmosphere, releasing energy in the form of light to create colorful auroras in the night sky. .
The movements of these electrically charged particles can disrupt our planet’s magnetic field enough to send satellites falling to Earth, Live Science previously reported, and scientists have warned that extreme geomagnetic storms could even cripple the internet. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) Space Weather Prediction Center, erupting debris from CMEs typically takes between 15 and 18 hours to reach Earth.
Astronomers have known since 1775 that solar activity rises and falls in a cycle of about 11 years, but recently the sun has been more active than expected, with nearly double the sunspot appearances predicted by NOAA. Solar activity is expected to increase steadily over the next few years, reaching a global maximum in 2025 before declining again.
Scientists believe the largest solar storm ever observed in modern history was the Carrington event of 1859, which released about the same energy as 10 billion 1-megaton atomic bombs. After slamming into Earth, the powerful stream of solar particles fried telegraph systems around the world and conjured auroras brighter than full moon light as far south as the Caribbean. If a similar event were to occur today, scientists warn, it would cause billions of dollars in damage and trigger widespread blackouts, much like the 1989 solar storm that released a billion-ton gas plume and caused a blackout across the Canadian province of Quebec, NASA reported.
Originally posted on Live Science.