GameStop stock surge Super Mario 3D World Holocaust denial online 'Oumuamua and Avi Loeb You might have to return your stimulus money Sundance Film Festival Otter with Google Meet

The sun erupts in the biggest flares of 2013

The sun is getting seriously busy, erupting in its first X-class solar flares — the most powerful flares it can emit.

The X1.7 flare of 12 May, shown in a 171-angstrom wavelength and a 131-angstrom wavelength.
(Credit: NASA/SDO/AIA)

The sun is getting seriously busy, erupting in its first X-class solar flares — the most powerful flares it can emit.

We knew that the solar maximum was going to be some heady stuff, and the sun is not disappointing us. Last week, we saw a solar flare and coronal mass ejection (CME) as seen by NASA's entire Heliophysics satellite fleet; now, the sun has erupted in a pair of the most powerful flares of which it is capable.

The flares are the first two X-class flares of 2013, the first at a magnitude of X1.7, the second even bigger, at X2.8. So far, this year's solar flares have been M-class or weaker. The first flare occurred on Mother's Day, 12 May, peaking at midnight and accompanied by a CME, sending solar particles into space. This CME, even though it occurred on the side of the sun facing away from Earth, caused an hour-long high-frequency radio blackout.

The second occurred just 14 hours later, with the accompanying CME erupting from the sun at a speed of nearly 2000 kilometres per second. So far, it is the strongest flare of 2013, and the third-strongest flare of the current solar cycle — the first being an X6.9 in August 2011, and the second an X5.4 in March 2012.

Neither flare was directed toward the Earth — in fact, no planets were in the line of fire for either. However, NASA's Epoxi and Spitzer spacecraft may be in the firing line in the days ahead. They should be safe, though; NASA's operators can put the spacecraft into "safe mode" to protect them from solar material.

For us here on Earth, the radiation from the flares cannot penetrate the atmospheric layer, especially since the ozone strengthens during the period of solar maximum. However, GPS and radio signals may be disrupted — and the flares are likely to supercharge aurora displays, so photographers and sightseers are in for a treat.

You can sign up for SMS alerts for aurora events in Australia at the Bureau of Meteorology website.