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Major burst of solar flares could trigger bright auroras this week

The eruption is unlike anything seen "in years," according to one astronomer.

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A brilliant burst

A long, C-class solar flare.

NASA/SDO

Everyone's favorite ball of fire in the sky had a bit of an outburst over the weekend, as the sun released a flurry of solar flares and coronal mass ejections that could put on a show this week.

A sunspot labeled AR2824 let off a rapid-fire series of a dozen solar flares on May 22 that is "unlike anything we've seen in years," according to astronomer Tony Phillips at SpaceWeather.com.

Flares are bursts of electromagnetic light and energy at different wavelengths that reach Earth within minutes.

The burst was so energetic it made a lot of noise on radio telescopes.

"This was a very hot and dynamic flare for sure," Thomas Ashcraft, who recorded the flare with a radio telescope in New Mexico, told SpaceWeather.com. "Strong solar radio emissions were present at all frequencies." 

You can listen to the recording here (MP3 link).

In this case, the flares were also accompanied by multiple coronal mass ejections, which are directed blasts of particles that move more slowly than flares and can have all sorts of interesting impacts when they collide with our planet's magnetic field.

The collision can spark what's called a geomagnetic storm producing bright auroras at higher and even some middle latitudes. NOAA's Space Weather Prediction Center forecasts the aurora borealis could be visible as far south as Chicago starting Tuesday evening and continuing through Wednesday.

The center is predicting a possible G2-class geomagnetic storm, which is considered moderate and can also interfere with some power systems at high latitudes and certain radios including short-wave radio. Back in 2003, when I worked at an AM radio station just below the Arctic Circle we knew we might expect to be off the air for a few minutes when such a geomagnetic storm was in the forecast. 

The strongest flare seen over the weekend was a medium-size M-class flare. The sun is currently in the period of its solar cycle in which activity begins to increase as it builds towards a predicted peak somewhere around the middle of the decade. So odds are that what we're seeing now is merely a prologue for stronger flares and solar storms to come over the next few years.

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