NASA: What does it take to be an X-Class solar flare?

Solar weather roiling, making waves this week

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The Sun has been busy this week sending a number of strong geomagnetic pulses towards Earth and it continued today by emitting a flare strong enough to warrant NASA issue details about it. 

From NASA:  "On August 9, 2011 at 3:48 a.m. EDT, the sun emitted an Earth-directed X6.9 flare, as measured by the NOAA GOES satellite. These gigantic bursts of radiation cannot pass through Earth's atmosphere to harm humans on the ground, however they can disrupt the atmosphere and disrupt GPS and communications signals. In this case, it appears the flare is strong enough to potentially cause some radio communication blackouts. It also produced increased solar energetic proton radiation -- enough to affect humans in space if they do not protect themselves."

More on solar system: What's hot in space?

NASA went on to note that what's known as a coronal mass ejection (CME) also was associated with this flare. CMEs are another solar phenomenon that can send solar particles into space and affect electronic systems in satellites and on Earth. However, this CME is not traveling toward and Earth so no Earth-bound effects are expected, NASA added.

NASA also detailed how scientists classify the strength of solar flares. 

According to the space agency: "The biggest 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 ten times an M and 100 times a C. Within each letter class there is a finer scale from 1 to 9.  C-class and smaller flares are too weak to noticeably affect Earth. M-class flares can cause brief radio blackouts at the poles and minor radiation storms that might endanger astronauts."

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Space Weather Prediction Center which had only last week issued a geomagnetic storm bulletin said s solar activity is likely to be low to moderate with a slight chance for an isolated X-class flare, and/or proton event August 10. Event probabilities are expected to gradually decrease as Region 1263 - the portion of the Sun throwing off the current round of pulses rotates towards the west.  The geomagnetic field is expected to be predominantly quiet to unsettled for the next three days (10-12 August), the agency added.

Earlier this year NASA noted that the Sun hadn't blasted out any X-flares for four years but produced two of the powerful blasts in less than one month: Feb. 15th and March 9th. This continues the recent trend of increasing solar activity associated with our sun's regular 11-year cycle, and confirms that Solar Cycle 24 is indeed heating up, as solar experts have expected. Solar activity will continue to increase as the solar cycle progresses toward solar maximum, expected in the 2013 time frame.

NASA and NOAA - as well as the US Air Force Weather Agency and others -- keep a constant watch on the sun to monitor for X-class flares and their associated magnetic storms. With advance warning many satellites and spacecraft can be protected from the worst effects, NASA stated.

Follow Michael Cooney on Twitter: nwwlayer8  

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