Largest solar flare in years narrowly misses Earth – but risk is not over

Electromagnetic radiation from solar flares can cause major power cuts

Sunspots appear as dark areas on the surface of the Sun. Courtesy: Nasa 
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The largest solar flare in three years narrowly missed Earth on Sunday, but the risk is not over as the sunspot causing the eruptions will face the planet soon.

Solar flares send out electromagnetic radiation that can damage satellites and cause power cuts.

They are released into space by sunspots, dark blotches on the Sun that are primary indicators of solar explosions.

On Sunday, a medium-sized solar flare erupted and caused radio blackouts in the South Atlantic, despite not erupting in the direction of Earth.

On Tuesday, the sunspot will face Earth and astronomers are watching it closely for potentially larger and harmful solar flares.

"There is a risk," said Dr Ilias Fernini, deputy general director for research laboratories and observatory at the ‏‎Sharjah Academy for Astronomy, Space Science and Technology‎‏.

“This one wasn’t directed at Earth, but in the next couple of hours that same sunspot will be facing Earth and we have to keep observing it.

“It could also erupt later on and we have to hope that doesn’t happen.”

Dr Fernini said the solar explosion came as a surprise for astronomers because they predicted the new solar cycle would be quiet.

The Sun is in its "minimum" years, which means less solar activity.

Solar flares are classified in three categories – C are small, M are medium and X are huge.

The higher the number, the more intense they are. The eruption on Sunday was measured as an M4.4 solar flare.

In 1989, an X15-class solar flare caused a geomagnetic storm, causing a power cut in Quebec, Canada, that lasted for days.

It was so powerful, the northern lights were visible for two days and could also be seen in countries such as Honduras and Dominica.

Solar explosions can also damage satellites orbiting the Earth.

“We can measure the number of sunspots, but you can’t really predict solar eruptions – they can happen any time,” Dr Fernini said.

“Everything is digital these days and if we lose any satellite or internet connection, we’d be in big trouble. That’s why we have to predict these activities, but anything could happen.”