This image from the NOAA/National Weather Service's Space Weather Prediction Center shows the M3.2 solar flare on January 23, 2012. The flare is reportedly the largest since 2005 and is expected to affect GPS systems and other communications when it reaches the Earth's magnetic field in the morning of January 24.
On Monday morning, the sun let loose a sort of stellar “hiccup” and sent into space a burst of extra energy in the form of a large solar flare and coronal mass ejection. These kinds of events are not terribly rare, but the unusual thing about this solar explosion was that it was aimed directly at all of us here on Earth.
In solar events such as these, X-rays traveling at the speed of light traverse the 93 million miles to Earth in about 8 minutes and can interfere with radio communications when they arrive. Right behind and moving slightly slower is a wave of charged particles that lights up the Earth’s magnetosphere and can sometimes interfere with airplane navigation systems. So how dangerous is the energy of hundreds of millions of nuclear bombs hurtling toward our precious blue ball at 5 million miles per hour? Not terribly much this time around, say astronomers. Some air traffic has been re-routed as a precautionary measure but there really isn’t much that the citizens of Earth need to do to be prepared. But there is the potential for significant aurora borealis activity at lower latitudes for those of us in the northern hemisphere. So, rest easy and look north after dark… we just might be in for one of nature’s most magnificent light shows.
How will the solar event affect us here on Earth? Just how dangerous is our universe?
Phil Plait, Astronomer and blogger for Discover magazine; author of Death from the Skies!: These Are the Ways the World Will End… (Viking Adult 2008)