Biggest solar shot since 1995 is Earth-bound

Not quite X class, this solar flare is one worth watching NASA says

Seems not a week goes by without s big solar flare erupts sending the Earth a massive shot of solar wind, radiation and electromagnetic pulses capable of damaging satellites, GPS and electronics - but this week the blast is large - the largest since 1995, NASA said.

According to  This morning, Jan. 23rd, the big sunspot 1402 erupted, producing a long-duration M9-class solar flare. The explosion's M9-ranking puts it on the threshold of being an X-flare, the most powerful kind.  Solar protons accelerated by this  M9-class solar flare are streaming past Earth. On the NOAA scale of radiation storms, this one ranks S3, which means it could, e.g., cause isolated reboots of computers onboard Earth-orbiting satellites and interfere with polar radio communications.

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"This is a relatively substantial and fast-moving (2200 km/s) CME. Spacecraft in geosynchronous, polar and other orbits passing through Earth's ring current and auroral regions could be affected by the cloud's arrival. In addition, strong geomagnetic storms are possible, so high-latitude sky watchers should be alert for auroras," a posting on the site stated.

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."

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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.

Interestingly last week NASA noted that while high-levels of solar activity is not good news for satellites, GPS and electronics they can have one benefit: such massive solar bursts can decrease the amounts of dangerous orbital debris.

The NASA Orbital Debris Program Office today said the increase in solar activity over the past year actually decreased the number of cataloged debris in Earth orbit during 2011.   This increase in the Sun's activity, known as the solar maximum is expected to peak next year.

Nicholas Johnson, NASA Chief Scientist for Orbital Debris explains: "Increased solar activity heats the Earth's atmosphere, causing it to expand.  This increases the density of the atmosphere at any given altitude.  This, in turns, increases drag on the satellite, causing it to fall back to Earth more quickly.  The increase in drag is most noticeable at altitudes of 800 km and below.  Most of the large, derelict objects which should be removed are at altitudes between 800 km and 1000 km.  Typically, above 500 km there is very little orbital decay except during periods of solar maximum."

Johnson added that there were similar debris decreases during the solar maximum of 1989.  "There would have also been a decrease around 2000, but new debris was being created at a faster rate than solar max was removing the old debris.  Fortunately, since 2009 the creation of new debris has been greatly reduced - thanks to international efforts," he said.

In the absence of a new major satellite breakup, the overall orbital debris population should continue to decrease during 2012 and 2013, Johnson stated.

NASA also had other good news on the debris front: The year 2011 ended with the least number of  identified satellite breakups since 2002. Moreover, the number of long-lived, 10 cm and larger debris appears to have been only a few dozen. NASA said only three standard satellite breakups were detected by the U.S. Space Surveillance Network during the year.

Follow Michael Cooney on Twitter: nwwlayer8  and on Facebook

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