The massive solar flare that erupted recently from an active region on the sun that triggered some disruption to radio communications on Earth has raised some questions and concerns for our planet, but scientist say, solar flares should not be a source of concern.

Medical Daily spoke with NASA Researchers to get full details of the recent solar flare that was classified as an X1.9 solar flare, ranked among the most powerful types of storms our sun can release.

The flare originated in one of the largest sunspots seen in years in an extremely active region called AR113339, at around 4:27 p.m. ET on November 3rd. The region is a lot wider than the earth at about 50,000 miles long. The earth is about eight thousand miles wide.

The solar flare triggered some disruption to radio communications on Earth beginning about 45 minutes after its eruption.

What are solar flares?

NASA researchers explained that solar flares are “essentially huge explosions on the sun” and represent one type of solar eruptive event which appears as a sudden “brightening on the sun’s surface.”

Solar flares are our solar system’s largest explosive events which are intense bursts of radiation that come from the release of magnetic energy associated with sunspots.

How can they be seen?

Solar flares, lasting from minutes up to hours, can be seen as bright areas on the sun.

Lika Guhathakurta, Living with a Star Program and scientist with NASA Headquarters said that even though solar flares are visible in white light they are better noticed through their bright X-ray and ultraviolet emissions.

Scientists primarily see solar flares by the photons, light, it releases.

“Although solar flares can be visible in white light, they are often more readily noticed via their bright X-ray and ultraviolet emissions,” said Guhathakurta.

Scientist Yihua Zheng from the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, Space Weather Laboratory said that, “such flares radiate throughout the electromagnetic spectrum, from gamma rays to x-rays, through visible light to kilometer-long radio waves.”

How do solar flares occur?

Solar flares occur due to the “tearing and reconnection of strong magnetic fields in the active regions of the Sun,” explained Zheng.

Guhathakurta described the occurrence of solar flares figuratively, comparing it with a twisted rubber band that snaps when twisted too far.

“Flares occur when intense magnetic fields on the Sun become too tangled. Like a rubber band that snaps when it is twisted too far, the tangled magnetic fields release energy when they ‘snap,’” she explained.

“Solar flares emit huge bursts of electromagnetic radiation, including X-rays, ultraviolet radiation, visible light, and radio waves,” she said.

“The energy emitted by a solar flare is more than a million times greater than the energy from a volcanic explosion on Earth!”

Coronal Mass Ejections

Both Guhathakurta and Zheng mentioned, coronal mass ejections, CME’s, which are explosions in the Sun’s corona that “spew out solar particles,” with speeds ranging from 200km/s to 3,000 km/s.

Both scientists said that CME’s can be very dangerous for our Earth.

“CME's can seriously disrupt the Earth's environment. Intense radiation from the Sun, which arrives only 8 minutes after being released, can alter the Earth's outer atmosphere, disrupting long-distance radio communications,” said Guhathakurta.

“Very energetic particles pushed along by the shock wave of the CME can endanger astronauts or fry satellite electronics.”

Zheng said that CME’s also known as ‘space hurricanes,’ if heading towards Earth, are “capable of generating geomagnetic storms and many other deleterious impacts, lasting several days.”

Guhathakurta says that “coronal mass ejections will become more and more frequent as we are near solar maximum.”

The recent massive X1.9 solar flare that occurred on November 3rd was extremely strong “in terms of x-ray intensity,” but its space weather impacts were “limited as it didn't have any CME associated with it,” said Zheng.

What does this mean for our planet, our sun?

“Space weather may impact spacecraft and ground-based systems,” said Guhathakurta.

Zheng explained that the “Extreme UltraViolet part of the solar flare can affect the dayside of the Earth's ionosphere, changing its particle make-up and structure,” which can affect radio communication.

“In addition, a powerful flare also releases bursts of noises at radio wavelengths, potentially causing radio blackout.”

Do sun flares pose a threat towards our planet?

Sun flares pose a threat mainly to radio communications and may modify the composition and structure of the dayside ionosphere.

“Electrical power in particular, is vulnerable to space weather and is of critical importance to modern economies and societies,” said Guhathakurta.

Guhathakurta explained that a “number of space weather incidents have already disrupted electrical transformers and grids in Canada and South Africa and following these, the sector has introduced mitigation practices.”

Explaining that solar flares can modify the composition and structure of the dayside ionosphere, Zheng said this produces, “sudden ionospheric disturbances.”

The solar flares are accompanied by solar energetic particles, including protons and heavy ions, “their associated radiation is harmful both to astronaut and spacecraft safety. If there is a CME associated with the flare, the SEP impact is likely to be stronger in intensity and broader in the affected region,” said Zheng.

Zheng said that all of these are concerns but luckily we have space weather services available at NASA to prevent/alleviate any potential damage.

“We have the GSFC Space Weather Center, which provides the latest space weather forecasts and information to all NASA robotic missions, thus helping to safeguard space assets throughout the solar system. In addition, the Space Radiation Analysis Group at the NASA Johnson Space Center does its part to ensure astronaut safety.”

How did the massive sun flare trigger disruptions to radio communications on Earth? What happened to radio communication at that time and how did NASA retrieve that information?

Guhathakurta gave a detailed description as to how communication disruption occurred and what was happening to radio communication at the time of the event.

“The sun occasionally produces bursts of charged particles at very high energies,” she said.

“Some of these particles enter the Earth’s atmosphere to produce neutrons.”

She then explained that during strong events those neutrons can travel to the Earth’s surface and “raise radiation levels above normal,” which can disrupt digital systems in aircraft and on the ground.

The neutrons are also significant health risk to air crew and passengers, she said.

“Radiation storms can also produce an atmospheric layer that absorbs high-frequency (HF) radio waves across polar-regions.”

As the sun can generate strong bursts of natural radio emissions, during the launch of CMEs, these burst can cause a direct interference with radio signals on Earth.

“These have the potential to interfere with modern wireless technologies such as satellite navigation, wireless internet, mobile telephones etc.”

Should we be concerned about future solar flares?

The impact of a solar flare depends on many factors, said Zheng. She said these include the flare’s intensity, its duration, its location, and whether there is a CME associated with it but solar flares should not concern us as they happen “all the time.”

“It should not be a source of concern. The sun gives off flares/CMEs all the time.”