Astronomers have discovered a series of huge new sunspots on the side of the sun facing Earth, ahead of a period of expected increased solar activity.
Sunspots are dark areas on the surface of the sun caused by intense magnetic activity. This activity almost always leads to solar flares and coronal mass ejections – when radiation and the nuclear gases in a star are fired into the cosmos.
Solar activity has been observed to rise and fall naturally every 11 years, although not quite like clockwork, and astronomers think we are about to enter a busy period.
A new family of sunspots discovered earlier this year on our star’s surface unleashed the largest solar flare that scientists have seen since 2017.
If a flash of light is strong enough, it can damage satellites and affect radio signals on Earth.
NASA is checking whether signs of such an eruption are likely, although no space weather warning has yet been issued regarding the new sites.
There are a number of classes of solar flares, with X class considered to be the most intense.
Two flares within three hours of each other in 2017 caused radio blackouts, the first classified as an X2.2 – the number indicating strength – while the second was an X9.3, the strongest since 2006.
Researchers believe that magnetic radiation from giant solar storms is the cause sudden and almost immediate explosion of dozens of naval mines in Vietnam in the 1970s.
At the time, the research team led by Dr. Delores Knipp wrote that the solar storm “deserves a scientific revisit as a major challenge to the space weather community, as it provides terrestrial spacetime observations of what was likely a Carrington-class storm.”
The Carrington event is believed to be the largest solar storm ever recorded to hit Earth in 1859.
It left an aurora visible in the sky even at latitudes much closer to the equator, and has been described in contemporary reports as even brighter than the light of a full moon.
It caused the failure of telegraph systems across Europe and North America, and a similar storm today could cause billions of dollars in damage worldwide.