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Buzzing asteroids, solar eruptions no April Fools' pranks

April kicks off with a particularly wild weekend of space weather as the sun shoots off explosions and space rocks make close passes.

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Eric Mack Contributing Editor
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Eric Mack
2 min read
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NASA/SDO

The sun didn't get the memo about April Fools' Day, because the eruptions it hurled into space starting April 1 were no joke.

The flares were followed soon after by a pair of small asteroids making close passes by Earth, all adding up to some lively space weather you probably didn't even notice.

On Saturday a sunspot tediously named AR 2644 suddenly exploded, throwing off an M4.4-class (medium-size) solar flare. The flare lasted less than a day and was the strongest one of the year so far, at least until Sunday when the same spot shot off an M5 flare.

That wasn't the only type of explosion our star fired off over the weekend. A number of coronal mass ejections -- much larger, slower-moving and shorter explosions of a hot material called plasma -- were also thrown off. Fortunately, NOAA's Space Weather Prediction Center says none of these eruptions will hit Earth.

It's important to note neither the plasma from a CME nor the highly energetic particles from flares typically threaten humans or even make their way past Earth's magnetic field. According to NASA, powerful flares (typically X-class) can mess with the part of the atmosphere where radio waves travel and sometimes degrade communications signals. If a powerful CME were to level a direct hit on Earth, on the other hand, it could mess with communications and GPS signals and possibly even disrupt parts of the electrical grid that are unprepared for such an event.

However, if either of the asteroids that came near us Sunday and Monday had scored a direct hit with Earth's surface, they would have left a much more tangible mark.

Asteroid 2017 FU102, which is about 26 feet (8 meters) long, came within about 143,000 miles (230,000 km) of Earth -- that's about 60 percent of the distance between here and the moon. It was followed just hours later early Monday by the slightly smaller Asteroid 2017 FT102, which passed at just a little farther than the distance to the moon (238,856 miles or 384,402 km).

A handful of small asteroids might be spotted passing by Earth closer than the moon each month, but it's a little unusual to see two buzz by in quick succession. While these two came close, celestially speaking, we've also seen space rocks come much closer this year without doing any damage.

So nothing to worry about after an especially active weekend for space weather. But it's always good to know what's going on beyond the confines of our nifty little atmosphere, because sometimes things sneak up on us like they did in Russia a few years back.

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