Solar flare triggers spectacular northern lights displays
Published Tuesday, January 24, 2012 11:54AM EST
A spectacular explosion, or flare, on the surface of the sun is causing the night sky here on Earth to light up with the aurora borealis.
The solar flare occurred on Sunday and was directed at the Earth. By Tuesday morning Space Weather Canada, the federal government agency that monitors such activity, issued a geomagnetic storm watch.
A video on NASA's website shows a quick, bright and powerful burst of energy erupting from the surface of the sun, then once again disappearing.
"The sun erupted late on Jan. 22, 2012 with an M8.7 class flare, an Earth-directed coronal mass ejection (CME), and a burst of fast moving, highly energetic protons known as a 'solar energetic particle' event," said a statement from NASA.
"The latter has caused the strongest solar radiation storm since September 2005."
The blast was travelling at a speed of close to 1,400 miles per second when it left the surface of the sun, and arrived at Earth's magnetosphere Tuesday morning.
"This has the potential to provide good auroral displays, possibly at lower latitudes than normal," NASA said.
In northern parts of Ireland, Scotland and southern England the aurora borealis, also known as the northern lights, lit up the night sky as the result of the unusual solar activity. The phenomenon is not typically visible so far south.
John Manuel, a researcher with the Canadian Space Agency's solar-terrestrial sciences division, said Canadians, particularly those in the north, should look out for especially vivid displays of the Northern Lights through Wednesday.
"For solar storms it's really a matter of timing and luck, or bad luck -- luck if you like the aurora because the CME (coronal mass ejection) that takes a couple of days to get to Earth is very likely to stir up the Earth's magnetic field in a way that will produce aurora, probably pretty good aurora, tonight," he told CTVNews.ca on Tuesday.
Some residents of more southern regions of Canada, where the northern lights are typically not seen, may also be treated to the phenomenon, Manuel said.
"In some of the truly massive storms they have been seen as far south as Mexico, which is truly amazing," he said.
Manuel said Sunday's solar flare doesn't come as a surprise. He said the sun is approaching the peak of its typical 11-year cycle, with activity expected to continue to build to a peak in 2013, after which the cycle will reset.
In addition to the beautiful displays in the night sky, solar storms can also wreak havoc on electronic devices, in particular satellites.
This occurred in 1994 when Canada's Anik E1 and E2 satellites were knocked out by a solar storm, and satellite TV signals were lost in Canada for several hours.
Power grids on Earth can also be affected by geomagnetic storms. In 1989, Manuel said, the province of Quebec was affected by a solar storm which caused six million people to lose power.
A spokesperson for the Canadian Space Agency told CTVNews.ca that Canadians could expect some minor radio communication disruptions and possible satellite interruptions this time around, but no major issues are anticipated.
NASA said the six astronauts currently aboard the International Space Station do not need to take any extra measures to protect themselves from the particles.