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Powerful X-class solar flare goes down in history as best-observed ever

This composite image combines views of three different telescopes that observed this intense flare. (Credit: NASA/SDO/IRIS/RHESSI)

This composite image combines views of three different telescopes that observed this intense flare. (Credit: NASA/SDO/IRIS/RHESSI)


Scott Sutherland
Meteorologist/Science Writer

Friday, May 9, 2014, 5:24 PM -

Scientists monitor the Sun at all times, using observatories in space and here on the ground, in an effort to warn us of any potentially-damaging solar flares that may erupt. On March 29, 2014, when five different observatories happened to be watching at the same time, an intense X-class solar flare exploded from the Sun's surface and became the most observed flare of all time. 

The five members of the team that were watching that day: NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory (SDO), NASA's Interface Region Imaging Spectrograph (IRIS), NASA's Reuven Ramaty High Energy Solar Spectroscopic Imager (RHESSI), the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency's Hinode; and the National Solar Observatory's Dunn Solar Telescope, on New Mexico's Sacramento Peak. Now, it was no particular coincidence that they all happened to be pointing in that particular direction. The area this flare exploded out of was an identified 'active region' that was crackling with flares. However, the fortuitous part was that this powerful flare erupted at just the right time, when they all had the best viewing conditions.

This video, from NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, goes into the details of this spectacular eruption, and the roll that each member of the team played in making this one for the history books:

Solar flares are beautiful, mesmerizing and spectacular to behold, and their interaction with Earth's magnetic field can set off awe-inspiring displays of the Northern and Southern Lights. They're also frightening, as they can easily dwarf the size of our homeworld, and they're dangerous, because the interaction of powerful flares with Earth's magnetic field can set off strong geomagnetic storms that can cause damage to satellites, as well as radio blackouts and even power blackouts on the ground.

Although avoiding one of these powerful flares would be next to impossible, knowing more about them can give us the ability to predict the worst potential effects from them, and protect our vulnerable technologies from being damaged. 

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