What’s up with these solar storms?

Solar storms are raging, how will they impact Earth?

The Sun has received and will likely get even more attention in the coming weeks as one of the busiest solar weather patterns blasts away at Earth. While the geomagnetic and radiation storms bombard space, little if any major problems have bothered us here on the ground so far. Of course there is always that chance that one of these solar flares could damage electrical grids or satellites, experts warn. Here we take a look at what’s going on with this solar weather.

Scientists monitor several kinds of space weather events -- geomagnetic storms, solar radiation storms, and radio blackouts – all caused by immense explosions on the sun.

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Graphic explaining how a solar flare is formed. Some background from NASA: The distance of the Sun from the Earth is approximately 93 million miles. At this distance, light travels from the Sun to Earth in about 8 minutes and 19 seconds. The Sun has a diameter of about 865,000 miles, about 109 times that of Earth. Its mass, about 330,000 times that of Earth, accounts for about 99.86% of the total mass of the Solar System. About three quarters of the Sun's mass consists of hydrogen, while the rest is mostly helium, NASA says.

Here is a look at 11 years in the life of the Sun, spanning most of solar cycle 23, as it progressed from solar minimum to maximum conditions and back to minimum (upper right) again, seen as a collage of 10 full-disk images of the lower corona. Of note is the prevalence of activity and the relatively few years when our Sun might be described as “quiet."

A look at the squadron of spacecraft out there looking at the Sun and space weather.

The image gives a basic overview of the Sun’s parts. The cut-out shows the three major interior zones: the core (where energy is generated by nuclear reactions), the radioactive zone (where energy travels outward by radiation through about 70% of the Sun), and the convection zone (where convection currents circulate the Sun’s energy to the surface).

Sunspot cycles over the last century. The blue curve shows the cyclic variation in the number of sunspots. Red bars show the cumulative number of sunspot-less days. The minimum of sunspot cycle 23 was the longest in the space age with the largest number of spotless days. Credit: Dibyendu Nandi et al.

These three images show the evolution of the coronal mass ejection from March 8. From NASA: The outer solar atmosphere, the corona, is structured by strong magnetic fields. Where these fields are closed, often above sunspot groups, the confined solar atmosphere can suddenly and violently release bubbles of gas and magnetic fields called coronal mass ejections. A large CME can contain a billion tons of matter that can be accelerated to several million miles per hour.

The biggest solar flares are known as "X-class flares" based on a classification system that divides solar flares according to their strength. The smallest ones are A-class (near background levels), followed by B, C, M and X. Similar to the Richter scale for earthquakes, each letter represents a 10-fold increase in energy output. So an X is 10 times an M and 100 times a C. Within each letter class there is a finer scale from 1 to 9, NASA says.

The March 8, M-6.3 class flare, came from a very active area of the Sun known as region 1429 that has so far produced two X class flares, and numerous M-class flares continues to crackle.

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From the ESA/NASA Solar and Heliospheric Observatory on March 8, 2012 shows a strong geomagnetic storm is racing from the Sun toward Earth. The Earth's magnetosphere protects us from most of the particles the sun emits, NASA says. When a CME or high-speed stream arrives at Earth it buffets the magnetosphere. If the arriving solar magnetic field is directed southward it interacts strongly with the oppositely oriented magnetic field of the Earth.

An illustration of Earth's magnetic field shielding Earth from solar particles.

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A NASA Solar Dynamics Observatory shot of the eruption from on March 8, 2012.

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National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) image shows the Sun's activity on March 8, 2012.

A shot of a Coronal Mass Ejection as viewed by the Solar Dynamics Observatory on June 7, 2011. The Sun unleashed an M-2 (medium-sized) solar flare, an S1-class (minor) radiation storm and a spectacular coronal mass ejection on June 7, 2011 from sunspot complex 1226-1227. The large cloud of particles mushroomed up and fell back down looking as if it covered an area of almost half the solar surface.

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The sun erupts with one of the largest solar flares of this solar cycle on March 6, 2012. This flare was categorized as an X-5.4, making it the second largest flare -- after an X-6.9 on Aug. 9, 2011.

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Solar activity is shown in an image made by NASA's SOHO Large Angle and Spectrometric Coronagraph (LASCO) instrument.

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A 1997 photograph taken by George Simnet, a solar physicist at the University of Birmingham and released March 4 by Britain's Particle Physics and Astronomy Research Council (PPARC), shows the Sun "sneezing" a huge bubble of hydrogen gas, as seen by the SOHO explorer, a joint NASA-European Space Agency project. A similar flare knocked out AT&T's Telstar 401 television relay satellite on Jan. 11, ruining viewing for millions of people.

One of the most definitive signs of solar storm activity, auroras. This one was shot on March 8, over the shimmering over snow-covered mountains in Faskrudsfjordur, Iceland.

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Aurora Australis, or the "Southern Lights", glow in the sky over the town of Glenn Ourua near Palmeston North, north of New Zealand's national capital Wellington.

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The pan-aurora borealis is visible over Vancouver, British Columbia and Seattle in February.

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A general view of the aurora borealis near the city of Tromsoe from northern Norway in January.

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Fast-moving protons from a solar energetic particle (SEP) event cause interference that looks like snow in these NASA images from the Solar Heliospheric Observatory taken in January.

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Here we have an extreme ultraviolet image, using false colors to trace different gas temperatures, of the sun taken by the Solar Dynamics Observatory.

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A prominence eruption from the sun is seen in this image taken by the Solar Dynamics Observatory.

From NASA: The sun goes through cycles of high and low activity that repeat approximately every 11 years. Solar minimum refers to the several Earth years when the number of sunspots is lowest; solar maximum occurs in the years when sunspots are most numerous. During solar maximum, activity on the sun and the possibility of space weather effects on our terrestrial environment is higher. No current observations or data show any impending catastrophic solar event.