NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory and the Solar Heliospheric Observatory were among several spacecraft that recorded the strongest flare to erupt from the sun's surface thus far this year. The flare exploded into space on the afternoon of Jan. 27 (1:37 p.m. EST), according to Space.com, and scientists labeled it an X-class eruption, the worst kind of solar flare.
Luckily, the location of the eruption, sunspot 1402, was facing away from the Earth. Scientists believe there will still be heightened levels of radiation from the coronal mass ejection (CME, the charged particles sent into space by the solar flare) but do not believe they pose a threat.
"The radiation storm will almost certainly be weaker," Doug Biesecker, a physicist at NOAA's Space Weather Prediction Center, told SPACE.com. "The coronal mass ejection seems to be headed well away from Earth, which is good because this one seems like a bigger beast than the last one, but that's still preliminary."
Scientists designated the flare an X1.7. By comparison, last week's eruption was ranked as an M9 flare, which is still considered a mid-range flare (but close to the borderline with the more powerful X-class).
The last massive solar flare also erupted from sunspot 1402, a region of the sun that has shown increasing activity of late. Erupting on Jan. 22, that particular flare sent electromagnetic particles streaming toward Earth, bombarding the planet with waves of charged particles beginning on Jan. 24. According to the Space Weather Center (per Space.com), the resulting storm was the worst radiation storm since 2003. Scientists still considered the radiation storm "moderate."
The solar flare that set off the solar storm in 2003 was ranked an X45 by NASA. The most powerful ever recorded, as can be seen listed on Space.com, was the 2006 X-class flare that registered an X9 on the space weather scale.
The sun's activity and other space weather conditions are monitored by NASA to determine any potential hazards to astronauts. This once included the shuttle astronauts but since the shutdown of the U. S. manned spaceflight program in 2011, reports are conducted solely for those aboard the International Space Station. A NASA spokesman, Kelly Humphries, noted that the six space denizens currently in orbit were not in any imminent danger.
Solar flares and storms are also monitored due to their potential for disrupting the operations of satellites in space, not to mention power grids and communications infrastructure on Earth.
Scientists see the increased activity thus far in 2012 as a ramp-up to the an even more active period in 2013. The sun's activity ebbs and flows in an 11-year cycle, which is approaching solar maximum.
(photo credit: NASA/SDO)