Business, Finance & Economics

PHOTOS: What is a solar flare and how will it affect Earth?

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NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory captured the flare, shown here in teal as that is the color typically used to show light in the 131 Angstrom wavelength, a wavelength in which it is easy to view solar flares. The flare began at 10:38 PM ET on Jan. 22, peaked at 10:59 PM and ended at 11:34 PM.

Credit:

NASA/SDO/AIA

Solar flares are sometimes associated with events called coronal mass ejections (CMEs), explosions in which billions of charged particles are blasted into space at high speed. NASA has detected a CME in this case, which it says it is traveling toward Earth at almost 1,400 miles per second.

A CME can disturb the Earth's magnetosphere – the magnetic "envelope" that surrounds the planet and protects us from most of the Sun's radiation. Depending on the direction from which solar magnetic energy arrives, it can interact strongly with the oppositely oriented magnetic field of the Earth, NASA says, causing Earth's field to be "peeled open like an onion." That allows charged particles to stream into Earth's atmosphere and rain down along magnetic field lines, which is known as a geomagnetic storm.

  • 617540main_sdo-still.jpg

    NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory captured the flare, shown here in teal as that is the color typically used to show light in the 131 Angstrom wavelength, a wavelength in which it is easy to view solar flares. The flare began at 10:38 PM ET on Jan. 22, peaked at 10:59 PM and ended at 11:34 PM.

    Credit:

    NASA/SDO/AIA

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    This picture shows a sunspot the size of Earth. Solar flares are usually associated with sunspots, which are shifting areas of intense magnetic activity on the Sun's surface that cause the temperature to drop slightly.

    Credit:

    Hinode NAOJ/NASA

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    The images above show the solar flare as observed by the Atmospheric Imaging Assembly (AIA) on NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory (SDO) at 10:27 PM, 10:42 PM and 11:12 PM EST on Jan. 22.

    Credit:

    NASA/SDO

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    The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's GOES-15 spacecraft captured this X-ray image of the solar storm on Jan. 23, 2012. NOAA's Space Weather Prediction Center says the effects of this solar eruption seem likely to be moderate.

    Credit:

    NOAA

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    The solar flare was accompanied by a coronal mass ejection (CME), which blasts into space a billion tons of particles traveling millions of miles an hour. The Solar Heliospheric Observatory pictured it on Jan. 23.

    Credit:

    SOHO/ESA & NASA

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    This image taken by NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory's AIA instrument shows the current conditions of the quiet corona and upper transition region of the Sun.

    Credit:

    NASA/SDO

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    An artist's impression of how the Earth's magnetic field shields us from particles released from the Sun. Solar storms can disrupt this field.

    Credit:

    NASA

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    Northern Lights (Aurora Borealis) over Lake Superior. Oct. 24, 2011.

    Credit:

    Lake Superior Photo