In the space of a week, the largest sunspot seen in 24 years has erupted in six massive flares, five of which were categorised X-class.
Since October 19, an active region of the sun has been getting busy. Dubbed AR 12192, the region is the largest sunspot in 24 years -- and most certainly the largest of this solar cycle, which is currently at maximum.
In the space of a week, AR 12192 -- nearly 129,000 kilometres (80,000 miles) across, big enough for 10 Earths to be laid across its diameter -- has erupted in six massive flares. Five of these flares were X-class -- the biggest and most powerful class of solar flare. The accompanying coronal mass ejections -- clouds of electrified gas that explode from the blast site -- can cause geomagnetic storms and auroras.
The effects of these on Earth include the disruption of radio and satellite communications and navigational equipment. AR 12192's flares caused several high-frequency radio blackouts on Earth's dayside, over wide areas for durations of about an hour each.
However, unusually, the flares were not accompanied by major CMEs -- which meant no geomagnetic storms and no auroras.
This solar maximum is the smallest on record, with the lowest recorded sunspot activity since 1904. The largest sunspot on record occurred in 1947. At 40 times the diameter of Earth, The Great Sunspot of 1947 was almost three times the size of AR 12192.
The first flare was observed on October 19, peaking at 1.01 a.m. EDT. At X1.1, it was one of the smallest of the X-class flares. Solar flares are categorised A, B, C, M and X; each class is ten times as powerful as the previous.
Each class has a smaller scale from 1 to 9; an X2 class flare is twice as strong as an X1, and an X3 is three times as strong as an X1.
The biggest solar flares don't stop at X9, though. The strongest solar flare ever seen overloaded the sensors at X28. We don't know precisely how strong it was.
The second flare, at M8.7, was only a mid-range flare, peaking at 9.59 p.m. EDT. This image shows the bright, hot solar material, visible as extreme ultraviolet light.
Peaking at 10.28 a.m. EDT on October 22, the third flare hit X1.6. This image, in the 131 Angstroms wavelength, shows the bright flash of ultraviolet light.
The strongest of the flares, the X3.1-class erupted on October 24, peaking at 5.41 p.m. EDT. This image shows the flare in the extreme ultraviolet wavelengths of 171 and 304 Angstroms.
Flare number five, coming in at X1, peaked at 1.08 p.m. EDT.
X2, peaking at 6.56 a.m. EDT on October 26, marked the third X-class flare in a period of just 48 hours.