Active sun gives a mini-encore of 2003 Halloween solar storm

Scott Sutherland

A decade ago, the sun gave both astronomers and the public some of the most spectacular displays of power that we've ever seen, including the most powerful solar flare ever recorded. After a fairly quiet summer this year, the sun has woken up and has been giving us a mini-encore of the 2003 solar storm.

Between October 19th and November 7th, 2003, roughly a year after the last solar maximum, an incredible collection of active sunspots formed on the sun and marched across the sun's surface that was facing towards Earth. Over two and a half weeks, 17 major flares erupted from these sunspots, including one of the strongest flare we've seen since scientists started observing space weather. Solar flares are ranked, from weakest to strongest, as magnitude C, M and X, with numbers ranging from 1 to 9. On November 4th, a flare exploded that went completely off the scale. It was initially ranked as X28, but later analysis actually pushed that up to X45!

NASA's Solar and Heliospheric Observatory (SOHO) recorded the entire event (you can see the X45 flare at around 0:50):

This year, while we're still at solar maximum, things haven't been quite as active as they were in 2003. Numerous M-class flares have gone off, as well as three X-class flares, the strongest exploding as X2.3 class on October 29th. NASA's newer Solar Dynamics Observatory has been watching the sun and this video shows the flares between October 23rd and 28th:

[ More Geekquinox: How to see Sunday, November 3rd’s rare hybrid solar eclipse ]

Back in 2003, the solar storm put the aurora borealis into overdrive, pushing the 'northern lights' so far south that people in the southern United States were able to enjoy the show, and in some places the skies were turned a blood red, just in time for Halloween. This year, although the flares have been active, and the aurora borealis is apparently putting on quite the display, the activity is limited to the most northern latitudes.

(Image courtesy: NASA)

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