A team of NASA experts recently spotted a colossal sunspot, which is expected to expand and move until it faces Earth directly in the coming week.
Scientists have warned that this darker, cooler region of the sun could trigger powerful flares such as solar flares (intense bursts of high-frequency radiation) and coronal mass ejections (CMEs; vast solar plasma flares).
These types of flares have the potential to cross Earth and interfere with satellite navigation and even trigger power outages, making sunspot monitoring far more crucial than mere scientific curiosity.
Sunspot captured by NASA’s Perseverance rover
Although the exact dimensions of the sunspot remain uncertain, it was NASA’s Perseverance rover that captured its images at a staggering distance of more than 250 million kilometers from the sun. Between August 17 and 20, the rover documented the sunspot while navigating through Jezero Crater on Mars.
“Because Mars orbits the far side of the Sun, Perseverance can see sunspots approaching more than a week before us. Consider this your week-long warning: a big sunspot is coming,” Spaceweather experts reported.
These captured images were converted into an animation, showcasing a faint sun over the void of space, with a noticeable mass of shadow sweeping across its facade. And as the scientists pointed out, to appear in such low-resolution images, the sunspot must be considerably large.
How are sunspots formed?
Sunspot formation is attributed to the Sun’s magnetic field, which is about 2,500 times stronger than Earth’s. Due to this intense magnetic field, the pressure of the magnetism increases, causing the adjacent atmospheric pressure to drop.
Consequently, this reduces the temperature compared to neighboring regions, as the dense magnetic field restricts the influx of hot gas from the Sun’s core to its exterior.
Thus, sunspots appear darker, as they are about 4,000 degrees Fahrenheit cooler than surrounding regions. In contrast, the Sun’s outer atmosphere can rise above a million degrees.
Decoding the mysteries of the sun
Last February, NASA presented breathtaking images of our mammoth star, delineating its various temperature zones. Using the Nuclear Spectroscopic Telescope Network (NuSTAR), the US space agency tracked different X-rays emitted by the hottest substances in the solar aura. Areas emitting high-energy X-rays were few, while regions emitting low-energy X-rays and ultraviolet light covered the entire gas orb.
With these discoveries, scientists aspire to decode one of the Sun’s deepest mysteries: why its outer atmosphere exceeds a million degrees, or a temperature at least 100 times hotter than its surface.
Learn more about solar flares
Solar flares, often referred to as solar flares or coronal mass ejections (CMEs), are massive explosions of energy and material from the surface of the Sun and its outer atmosphere. Here is a brief overview:
These are sudden and intense variations in brightness. It is a solar version of earthquakes, caused by the interaction of magnetic fields. Solar flares release a lot of energy, including radiation across virtually the entire electromagnetic spectrum, from radio waves to X-rays and gamma rays.
Coronal Mass Ejections (CME)
CMEs are massive outbursts of solar wind and magnetic fields rising above the solar corona or released into space. CMEs often accompany solar flares, but can also occur independently. They are huge bubbles of gas with magnetic field lines running through them.
Impacts of solar flares
Solar flares and CMEs can produce powerful X-rays that can affect Earth’s upper atmosphere and potentially disrupt radio signals. If directed toward Earth, charged particles from a CME can also disrupt our planet’s magnetosphere, causing geomagnetic storms.
Strong geomagnetic storms can interfere with satellite electronics and even reduce their operational life.
High doses of solar energy particles from CMEs can pose a threat to astronauts outside of Earth’s protective magnetosphere.
In extreme cases, geomagnetic storms can induce electrical currents in power lines, potentially damaging transformers and other components of an electrical network.
On a positive note, the interaction of charged particles from the Sun with the Earth’s magnetic field and atmosphere leads to the creation of the magnificent Northern and Southern Lights.
Understanding solar flares and CMEs is critical not only for our technology infrastructure but also for future deep space missions, as they can impact the safety of astronauts traveling beyond Earth’s protective magnetic field.
By Andrei Ionescu, Terre.com Editor
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