By: Tariq Malik
Published: 04/11/2013 12:38 PM EDT on SPACE.com
The most powerful solar flare of the year erupted from the sun today (April 11) sparking a temporary radio blackout on Earth, NASA officials say.
The solar flare occurred at 3:16 a.m. EDT (0716 GMT) and registered as a M6.5-class sun storm, a relatively mid-level flare on the scale of solar tempests. It coincided with an eruption of super-hot solar plasma known as a coronal mass ejection.
"This is the strongest flare seen so far in 2013," NASA spokeswoman Karen Fox explained in a statement. "Increased numbers of flares are quite common at the moment, since the sun's normal 11-year cycle is ramping up toward solar maximum, which is expected in late 2013."
NASA's sun-watching Solar Dynamics Observatory recorded a stunning video of the strongest solar flare of 2013, showing it extreme detail. The spacecraft is one of several space-based observatories keeping track of the sun's solar weather events.
NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory captured this image of a powerful M6.5 class flare, the strongest of 2013 at the time, at 3:16 EDT on April 11, 2013. This image shows a combination of light in wavelengths of 131 and 171 Angstroms.
NASA officials dubbed today's solar flare as a "spring fling" for the sun, which has been relatively calm as it heads into its peak activity period.
Today's M-class solar flare was about 10 times weaker than X-class flares, which are the strongest flares the sun can unleash. M-class solar flares are the weakest solar events that can still trigger space weather effects near Earth, such as communications interruptions or spectacular northern lights displays.
The solar flare triggered a short-lived radio communications blackout on Earth that registered as an R2 event (on a scale of R1 to R5), according to space weather scales maintained NOAA, Fox added.
When aimed directly at Earth, major solar flares and coronal mass ejections can pose a threat to astronauts and satellites in orbit. They can interfere with GPS navigation and communications satellite signals in space, as well as impair power systems infrastructure on Earth.
Fox said NASA officials are tracking the coronal mass ejection to see if it poses any space weather concerns for Earth. Meanwhile, the Solar Dynamics Observatory and other space observatories will continue to monitor the sun's activity.
"Humans have tracked this solar cycle continuously since it was discovered, and it is normal for there to be many flares a day during the sun's peak activity," Fox explained.
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MYTH: Solar flares have no effect on Earth.
REALITY: Solar flares can release electromagnetic radiation that's strong enough to disrupt electric power grids, satellites, GPS, and radio communications. Pictured: Coronal mass ejection as viewed by the Solar Dynamics Observatory on June 7, 2011.
MYTH: A solar flare could kill us all.
REALITY: Only a tiny fraction of the energy liberated by a solar flare reaches the Earth, because we're protected by our planet's atmosphere. "We have a very long record that shows that even the strongest flares can't blow out the atmosphere," Antti Pulkkinen, a research scientist at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, told CNN. Pictured: A solar eruptive prominence as seen in extreme UV light on March 30, 2010 with Earth superimposed for a sense of scale.
MYTH: Solar flares occur at random.
REALITY: Solar flares follow an 11-year cycle. Pictured: Full-disk images of the sun's lower corona during solar cycle 23, as it progressed from solar minimum to maximum conditions and back to minimum (upper right).
MYTH: 'Aftershocks' are rare.
REALITY: About one in seven flares is followed by an aftershock -- the flare springs back to life, producing an extra surge of ultraviolet radiation. Pictured: Sunspot 1112, crackling with solar flares, spotted by NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory on October 16, 2010.
MYTH: Solar flares can be seen with the naked eye.
REALITY: To see a solar flare from Earth, you must use a solar telescope. Never stare directly at the sun. What you can see with a naked eye are northern lights, which can be triggered by solar eruptions. Pictured: Northern lights (aurora borealis) over Lake Elora in Minnesota on July 15, 2012.
MYTH: Solar flares were discovered only recently.
REALITY: Solar flares were first observed in 1859 by English astronomer Richard Carrington. Pictured: Sunspots of September 1, 1859 as sketched by Richard Carrington.
MYTH: Solar flares are small compared to other explosions in our solar system.
REALITY: Solar flares are among the biggest explosions in our solar system. "They erupt near sunspots with the force of a hundred million hydrogen bombs," Robert Lin of UC Berkeley's Space Science Lab said in <a href="http://cse.ssl.berkeley.edu/energy/Resources/Living%20With%20a%20Star/------START%20HERE-------/6/solar_f.htm#top">a written statement</a>. Pictured: Solar and Heliospheric Observatory (SOHO) spacecraft image of a solar flare on October 28, 2003.
MYTH: Solar flares can knock satellites from orbit.
REALITY: When satellites do fall out of orbit, it's because Earth's gravity is pulling them down. Pictured: Solar Dynamics Observatory (SDO) image of an M7.9 class solar flare on March 13, 2012.
MYTH: Solar flares produce sunspots.
REALITY: It's actually the other way around. Magnetic fields associated with sunspots -- cool, dark regions of the sun's surface -- can sometimes give rise to solar flares. Pictured: NASA's sun-observing TRACE spacecraft image shows a large sunspot group from September 2000.
MYTH: Solar flares and solar prominences are different names for the same phenomenon.
REALITY: Solar flares and prominences are different. A prominence is a loop of plasma traveling along magnetic field lines. Sometimes this loop collapses back into the sun -- or, if the prominence erupts, a solar flare can result. Pictured: A solar prominence on October 19, 2012, captured by NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory (SDO).
MYTH: Solar flares and coronal mass ejections are the same thing.
REALITY: Coronal mass ejections are also explosions on the sun--but a different type of explosion. "If a solar flare is a tornado, very intense, very focused, very local, a coronal mass ejection is a hurricane," astronomer Phil Plait told The Huffington Post. Pictured: An X1.4 solar flare associated with a coronal mass ejection on July 12, 2012.