Sun wakes up from years of hibernation

Boom! Solar flares release 10 million times more energy than a volcano. © Nasa

Should we be worried about solar storms? Scientists have detected the largest solar flare in three years. The unusual space weather could mean our star is about to become much more active.

What’s happening

Huge loops of energy arc out from sunspots below. They are unstable, magnetic, and full of energy. When they tangle, the magnetic lines create an epic explosion. Radiation bursts into space in a spectacular solar flare – and when flares are intense enough, they can affect life down on our planet.

Find out more

Our star has a natural life cycle. Over a period of 11 years, its activity rises and falls. Scientists measure these changes by counting sunspots (temporary dark patches on the Sun’s surface). Sometimes, the magnetic fields around the sunspots react, creating solar flares.

Last month, Nasa noticed a flare bigger than any since 2017. It came from a family of sunspots hidden on the other side of the star. Researchers are now carefully looking out for the spots to see if they stay for long. If they do, it could be a sign that the Sun is moving into a more active phase of its cycle. This could mean harsher space weather.

Particularly powerful solar flares can affect satellites in orbit as well as radio signals on Earth.

Should we be worried?

Some say…

Yes. Solar storms do not only affect the people and spacecraft in orbit, but aeroplanes as well. They can also affect life on Earth. Our lives and societies are based around the technology of our phones and computers, which rely on satellites. And, if the planet were hit by a strong solar flare, the radiation could cause weeks of blackouts.

Others think…

Not really. These are only very early signs that the Sun is becoming more active. Even with our star more active, it is unlikely that there will be a solar flare large enough to harm life on Earth. It is better to worry about dangers on our own planet, such as climate change. There is no point in focusing on something that might not ever happen.

You Decide

  1. Is it necessary for scientists to learn more about the Sun?

Activities

  1. Imagine there has been a month of blackouts caused by solar storms. Write a news report describing how humanity reacted.

Some People Say...

“The Sun, with all those planets revolving around it and depending on it, can still ripen a bunch of grapes as if it had nothing else in the Universe to do”

Galileo Galilei (1564-1642), astronomer

What do you think?

Word Watch

Arc
Part of a curve; a crescent.
Radiation
The transmission of energy waves through space. Sun rays are known as solar radiation.
Magnetic fields
Like the Earth, the Sun also has a magnetic field that’s particularly strong around sunspots.
Nasa
National Aeronautics and Space Administration is a part of the US government that sends space craft into space and does space research. It was set up in 1958.
Harsher
Unpleasantly rough.
Space weather
Another term used to describe solar flares.
Satellites
Machines sent into space to control things like phone connections and GPS maps.
Orbit
Going round another object.
Blackouts
The solar flares could affect our electricity, causing widespread power cuts.

Subjects

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