Astronomers have discovered a series of enormous new sunspots on the side of the sun facing Earth, ahead of a period of what is expected to be increased solar activity.
Sunspots are dark areas on the surface of the sun, caused by intense magnetic activity. This activity almost always leads to solar flares and coronal mass ejections – when radiation and the nuclear gases inside a star are fired into the cosmos.
Solar activity has been observed rising and falling naturally every 11 years, although not quite like clockwork, and astronomers believe we are about to head into a busy period.
A new family of sunspots, discovered on the surface of our star earlier this year, unleashed the biggest solar flare that scientists have seen since 2017.
If a flare is strong enough, it could damage satellites and impact radio signals on Earth.
NASA monitors for the signs of such a flare being likely, although no space weather warning has yet been issued regarding the new spots.
There are a number of classes of solar flares, with X-class being considered the most intense.
Two flares within three hours of each other in 2017 caused radio blackouts, the first classified as an X2.2 – the number indicating its strength – while the second was an X9.3, the strongest since 2006.
Researchers believe that magnetic radiation from giant solar storms caused the sudden and nearly instantaneous detonation of dozens of sea mines in Vietnam in the 1970s.
At the time, the research team led by Dr Delores Knipp wrote that the solar storm “deserves a scientific revisit as a grand challenge for the space weather community, as it provides space‐age terrestrial observations of what was likely a Carrington‐class storm”.
The Carrington Event is believed to be the largest solar storm ever recorded which hit Earth in 1859.
It left an aurora visible across the sky, even in latitudes much closer to the equator, and was described in contemporary reports as even brighter than the light of a full moon.
It caused the failure of telegraph systems all across Europe and North America, and a similar storm today could cause trillions of dollars in damage globally.