By: Tariq Malik
Published: 05/13/2013 06:54 AM EDT on SPACE.com
The sun unleashed a colossal Mother's Day solar flare on Sunday (May 12) in what has become the most powerful solar eruption of the year.
The giant solar flare, which registered as one of the largest eruptions the sun can unleash, peaked Sunday night at 10:17 p.m. EDT (0217 GMT) and was captured on camera by NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory. It sparked an hour-long high-frequency radio blackout, according to the Space Weather Prediction Center overseen by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
Sunday's solar flare registered as an X1.7-class sun eruption — the strongest type of solar flare the sun can fire off, according to the SWPC officials. [Most Powerful Solar Storms of 2013 (Photos)]
When aimed directly at Earth, X-class solar flares can pose a risk to astronauts and satellites in orbit, as well as interfere with communications and GPS signals on the ground. They can also super-charge Earth's northern lights displays by bombarding the planet with solar particles, triggering awesome aurora light shows.
But Sunday's solar flare erupted from an active sunspot on the far side of the sun, so it was not directly facing Earth when it unleashed a wave of super-hot plasma called a coronal mass ejection (CME).
"No planets were in the line of fire," astronomer Tony Phillips wrote on his website Spaceweather.com, which tracks space weather and skywatching events. "The sunspot that produced this blast is on the far side of the sun. Soon, in a few days, it will turn toward Earth, emerging into view over the sun's eastern limb."
Phillips wrote that NASA's infrared Spitzer Space Telescope and Deep Impact/Epoxi spacecraft may be in the line of fire of the solar flare. The flare came from a sunspot that has been active over the last week, firing off a number of medium-strength M-class solar flares as it slowly rotates into view as seen from Earth.
Sunday's sun eruption was by far the strongest solar flare of 2013 as the sun heads toward the peak o fits 11-year weather cycle later this year. Until Sunday, every solar flare this year have been M-class solar flares or weaker. An M6.5 flare was the strongest of the year before Sunday's event.
In 2012, the sun fired off a series of X-class flares, including a colossal X5.4 solar flare. An X6.9 solar flare in 2011 marked the solar storm in five years at that time.
The sun is currently in an active phase of its space weather cycle. The current cycle, called Solar Cycle 24, began in 2008 and is expected to run through 2019-2020. NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory is one of several spacecraft keeping constant watch on the sun to monitor its solar activity through this active phase of Solar Cycle 24.
SPACE.com will provide updates on this powerful solar flare as new details are available today.
- The Sun's Wrath: Worst Solar Storms in History
- Two Strong Solar Flares Erupt From Far Side | Video
- Anatomy of Sun Storms & Solar Flares (Infographic)
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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.