Science

Aurora Watchers 'May Be In Luck' As Solar Flare Reaches Earth

NPR | Jan. 9, 2014 2:32 p.m.

Contributed By:

Scott Neuman

A coronal mass ejection (CME) exploding off the surface of the sun in an image captured Tuesday by  the European Space Agency and NASA's Solar and Heliospheric Observatory.

A coronal mass ejection (CME) exploding off the surface of the sun in an image captured Tuesday by the European Space Agency and NASA's Solar and Heliospheric Observatory.

Uncredited, AP

If you’re bracing for impact of the Sun’s super-hot plasma, you’ll have to hold on a bit longer: the arrival of a coronal mass ejection from the X1.2-class solar flare that erupted earlier this week, is a little behind schedule, according to NOAA’s Space Weather Prediction Center.

The CME has been Earth-bound since the solar flare was spotted at 1:32 p.m. ET Tuesday. As The Two-Way’s Bill Chappell has reported, these events can kick it into high gear, reaching speeds well over 1,000 miles per second.

Even so, the Space Weather Prediction Center issued this report at about 7:30 a.m. ET:

“The CME, originally expected to arrive around 0800 UTC (3:00 a.m. EST) today, January 9, is now slightly overdue.”

Overdue? How long? We’re not quite sure, but NOAA’s forecast of the CME arriving on Thursday still stands.

It’s important to note, as NASA does, that “These particles cannot travel through the atmosphere to harm humans on Earth, but they can affect electronic systems in satellites and on the ground.” The X-class flares are, however, nothing to be trifled with, according to Spacewearther.com:

“Scientists classify solar flares according to their x-ray brightness in the wavelength range 1 to 8 Angstroms. There are 3 categories: X-class flares are big; they are major events that can trigger planet-wide radio blackouts and long-lasting radiation storms. M-class flares are medium-sized; they can cause brief radio blackouts that affect Earth’s polar regions. Minor radiation storms sometimes follow an M-class flare. Compared to X- and M-class events, C-class flares are small with few noticeable consequences here on Earth.”

Space.com says NOAA are expecting the flare to spark geomagnetic storms in Earth’s magnetic field when a wave of super-hot solar plasma associated with the flare — the CME — reaches Earth in the next few days. It could trigger spectacular auroras as far south as Illinois and Colorado and possibly disrupt power lines and radio transmissions.

“This is the first significant flare of 2014, and follows on the heels of mid-level flare earlier in the day,” NASA spokeswoman Karen Fox of the agency’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., wrote in a statement earlier this week. “Each flare was centered over a different area of a large sunspot group currently situated at the center of the sun, about half way through its 14-day journey across the front of the disk along with the rotation of the sun.”

Despite its tardiness, the CME has already complicated things here on Earth. On Wednesday, it forced the delay of a resupply mission to the International Space Station. The launch of Orbital Science’s unmanned Antares from Wallops Island, Va. was pushed up to Thursday afternoon. No word yet on whether the slower-than-expected CME will affect the reschedule.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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