A gigantic sunspot has swollen to twice the size of Earth, has doubled its diameter in 24 hours, and is pointed straight at us.
The sunspot, designated AR3038, grew to 2.5 times the size of Earth from Sunday (June 19) to Monday night (June 20), according to Spaceweather.com – bringing the sunspot’s diameter to about 19,800 miles or 31,900 kilometers tracks news of solar flares, geomagnetic storms, and other cosmic weather events.
Sunspots are dark patches on the Sun’s surface where powerful magnetic fields generated by the flow of electrical charges from the Sun’s plasma knot before suddenly collapsing. The resulting energy release triggers bursts of radiation called solar flares and creates explosive jets of solar material called coronal mass ejections (CMEs).
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“Yesterday sunspot AR3038 was large. Today it’s huge. The fast-growing sunspot has doubled in size in just 24 hours,” reported Spaceweather.com. “AR3038 has an unstable ‘Beta-Gamma’ magnetic field that contains energy for the M-class [medium-sized] solar flares, and it faces Earth directly.”
When a solar flare strikes Earth’s upper atmosphere, the flare’s X-rays and ultraviolet radiation ionize atoms, making it impossible for high-frequency radio waves to bounce off them, and what is known as radio blackout occurs. Radio blackouts occur over areas of the earth lit by the sun while a flare is in progress; such power outages are classified in order of increasing severity from R1 to R5.
In April and May, two solar flares caused R3 blackouts over the Atlantic, Australia and Asia, Live Science previously reported. Because solar flares travel at the speed of light, they only take 8 minutes to reach us from an average distance of about 150 million kilometers.
According to SpaceWeatherLive, when an Earth-facing sunspot forms near the Sun’s equator (where AR3038 is located), it typically takes just under two weeks for it to cross the Sun so that it’s no longer facing Earth.
Currently, AR3038 is just north of the Sun’s equator and just over halfway, so Earth will remain in the crosshairs for a few more days.
Despite its alarmingly rapid growth, the giant sunspot is less scary than it might seem. The flares it will most likely produce are M-class solar flares that “generally cause brief radio outages affecting Earth’s polar regions,” alongside smaller radiation storms, the European Space Agency wrote in a blog post.
M class flares are the most common type of solar flare. Although the Sun occasionally releases enormous Class X flares (the strongest category) with the potential to cause high-frequency blackouts on the flare-exposed side of the Earth, these flares are observed much less frequently than smaller solar flares.
Sunspots can also eject solar material. On planets with strong magnetic fields like Earth, the barrage of solar debris from CMEs is absorbed by our magnetic field, triggering powerful geomagnetic storms.
During these storms, the Earth’s magnetic field is slightly compressed by the waves of high-energy particles trickling down magnetic field lines near the poles and stirring up 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 transmit Satellites plummeting to Earth, Live Science previously reported, and scientists have warned extreme geomagnetic storms could even cripple the internet.
It typically takes around 15 to 18 hours for debris from CMEs to erupt to reach Earth, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Space Weather Prediction Center.
Astronomers have known since 1775 that solar activity rises and falls on an approximately 11-year cycle, but recently the Sun has been more active than expected, with almost twice as many sunspots as NOAA predicted. The Sun’s activity is projected to increase steadily over the next few years, reaching an overall maximum in 2025 before declining again.
Scientists believe the largest solar storm ever observed in contemporary history was the Carrington Event of 1859, which released about the same energy as 10 billion 1-megaton atomic bombs. After slamming into the earth, the powerful stream of solar particles burned telegraph systems around the world and caused auroras brighter than the light of the full moon to appear as far away as the Caribbean.
If a similar event happened today, scientists warn, it would cause trillions of dollars in damage and trigger widespread power outages, much like the 1989 solar storm that released a billion tons of gas cloud and caused a power outage across Canada’s province of Quebec, reported the NASA.
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This article was originally published by Live Science. Read the original article here.