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A solar flare Last week's X-class solar flare shot out a powerful geomagnetic storm (shown in red). (NASA)

Solar Flare-up

Powerful burst of energy from the Sun reaches Earth, creating dazzling light shows

By Zach Jones | February 22 , 2011
Solar flares create dazzling auroras near the North Pole and South Pole. (Kyodo/NewsCom)
Solar flares create dazzling auroras near the North Pole and South Pole. (Kyodo/NewsCom)

On February 14, the sun shot out the biggest solar flare in years. The flare was so big that it disrupted radio signals in China and allowed the aurora borealis to be seen in the sky as far south as Washington State. These colorful lights caused by solar flares are usually only seen farther north, near the Arctic.

A solar flare is a big burst of energy that erupts from the sun. This one was ranked X-class—the most powerful. Flares this big have been known to knock out electrical power, phone signals, and even Internet connections all over the Earth.

“This particular X-class flare comes on the heels of a few M-class and several C-class flares over the past few days,” said a statement released by U.S. space agency NASA.

By the time all that power hit Earth, the flares joined together to create what’s known as a geomagnetic storm. The storm threw magnetic energy all over the planet.

“What might have been three hits . . . seems to have merged to be just one interplanetary shock,” NASA said.

The last and biggest flare’s particles flew toward Earth at a rate of 900 kilometers per second. That’s pretty fast!

So far, this was the most powerful flare in the current solar cycle—a pattern of the Sun’s activity that restarts every 10.7 years. Scientists are predicting worse geomagnetic storms between 2012 and 2014, when the cycle enters a high activity phase.

EARTH’S SOLAR SHIELD

Earth is protected from most solar flares by an invisible shield called the magnetic field.

Charged particles from the sun that hit the field are funneled to either the North Pole or South Pole—also known as the planet’s magnetic poles—and spread out harmlessly.

In a flare-up like last week’s, Earth’s magnetic field cannot handle all that energy at once. That’s what caused radio blackouts in parts of Asia.

Often, solar particles create “space twisters” in the sky above the poles that create auroras. Particles let loose from last week’s flare created auroras that reached as far south as Norway and even the continental U.S.

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