The Sun has been experiencing a period of intense activity, with several X-class flares erupting from its surface within 24 hours. The most powerful of these flares was an X6.3, which is the most powerful flare seen for the current solar cycle and the most powerful since an X8.2 in 2017. While there is no danger to life or infrastructure on Earth, high-frequency radio communications and blackouts may have been interrupted on the sunlit side of Earth.

The sunspot region responsible for these flares, AR 3590, is rotating towards the center of the Sun’s disk, which means it may emit a more Earth-directed eruption as it continues to evolve. The three flares were an X1.8 flare that peaked at 6:07 pm EST on February 21, an X1.7 flare that peaked at 1:32 am EST on February 22, and the X6.3 flare that peaked at 5:34 pm EST, also on February 22. The ultraviolet flux produced by these events is responsible for any radio blackouts.

Coronal mass ejections, or CMEs, often accompany flares, which are ejections of billions of tons of coronal plasma, with magnetic fields embedded within. However, neither of the first two flares were accompanied by a CME, and at the time of writing, there was no word on whether the third, largest flare was similarly bereft.

X-class flares are the most powerful flares on the scale, and they can trigger wide-scale communications blackouts and cause damage to satellites. However, both the NOAA and the UK Met Office report that the most recent flare activity poses no threat to Earth.

The Sun goes through periodic cycles of activity, with its magnetic field reversing polarity every 11 or so years. As the polarity reversal approaches, the Sun gets more active, with more sunspots, flares, and CMEs. The polarity reversal happens as activity reaches a peak known as solar maximum, before the Sun starts to quiet down again. Scientists think we are very close to solar maximum right now (although we only know months after it has taken place, because scientists calculate it based on declining solar activity).

The 25th solar cycle is currently ongoing, and each solar cycle is different. Predicting how they will go is not easy, and solar cycle 25 has been far stronger than official forecasts initially predicted. While this doesn’t mean anything bad for us, it could mean that we need to rethink our understanding of how the Sun works.

AR 3590, the sunspot region responsible for the recent flares, is magnetically complex, with features that are consistent with a high likelihood of the reconnection of magnetic field lines. This process unleashes the torrent of energy and plasma known as a solar flare. AR 3590 has a rare magnetic classification given to sunspot regions most likely to spit out powerful solar flares, so we may not have seen the last of its activity. We may even get a mild CME, sending just enough solar particles to rain down into Earth’s ionosphere and generate strong, beautiful aurorae.

This news is a creative derivative product from articles published in famous peer-reviewed journals and Govt reports:

1. Kepko, L., Nakamura, R., Saito, Y., Vourlidas, A., Taylor, M. G., Mandrini, C. H., … & Wang, C. (2024). Heliophysics Great Observatories and international cooperation in Heliophysics: An orchestrated framework for scientific advancement and discovery. Advances in Space Research.
2. Kangas, T., Kuncarayakti, H., Nagao, T., Kotak, R., Kankare, E., Fraser, M., … & Reguitti, A. (2024). The enigmatic double-peaked stripped-envelope SN 2023aew. arXiv preprint arXiv:2401.17423.
3. Krolikowski, D. M., Kraus, A. L., Tofflemire, B. M., Morley, C. V., Mann, A. W., & Vanderburg, A. (2024). The Strength and Variability of the Helium 10830 Å Triplet in Young Stars, with Implications for Exosphere Detection. The Astronomical Journal, 167(2), 79.
4. Light on the Land. Simon and Schuster, 2030.

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