Sun Fires Off 3 Solar Eruptions Toward Mercury
The third coronal mass ejection in two days erupted off the sun in the direction of Mercury on April 21, 2013, at 12:39 p.m. EDT (1639 GMT). This image of the CME, shown shooting off the right side of the image, was capture by the joint ESA and NASA Solar Heliospheric Observatory (SOHO). The sun is blocked in this image so its brightness doesn’t obscure the solar atmosphere, the corona.
Credit: ESA&NASA/SOHO

The sun has unleashed a trio of solar eruptions toward the planet Mercury in recent days, solar storms that may pass one NASA spacecraft while dealing a glancing blow to another, NASA officials say.

The three flares erupted from the sun over the span of two days, and belched waves of plasma and charged particles — called coronal mass ejections (CMEs) — that are now heading toward Mercury, NASA officials said in a statement. The combined CMEs are expected to pass the agency's Messenger probe, which has been orbiting the planet closest to the sun since March 2011, but may deliver a glancing blow to the Stereo-A spacecraft, which circles Earth while training its eyes on the sun.

"The Messenger and Stereo mission operators have been notified," NASA officials wrote in an update. "There may be some particle radiation associated with this event, which in the worst case scenario can impact computer electronics on board interplanetary spacecraft. If warranted, operators can put spacecraft into safe mode to protect the instruments from the solar material." [Amazing Solar Storms of 2013 (Photos)]

This image of a coronal mass ejection (CME) was captured on April 20, 2013. The CME is headed in the direction of Mercury. The large bright spot on the left is Venus.
This image of a coronal mass ejection (CME) was captured on April 20, 2013. The CME is headed in the direction of Mercury. The large bright spot on the left is Venus.
Credit: ESA&NASA/SOHO

The first CME erupted at 2:54 a.m. EDT (0655 GMT) on April 20. Two additional CMEs followed the next day, at 3:54 a.m. EDT (0754 GMT) and 12:39 p.m. EDT (1639 GMT). All three clouds of superhot plasma were blasted from the sun at speeds greater than 1.8 million miles per hour (2.9 million kilometers per hour).

When aimed directly at Earth, the strongest solar flares and eruptions can pose a threat to satellites and astronauts in space, and interfere with navigation, communication and power infrastructure on the surface.

NASA's Stereo-A is one of a pair of twin space probes that monitor solar weather events. The Stereo spacecraft (short for Solar Terrestrial Relations Observatory) were launched in 2006.

Many of us take the sun for granted, giving it little thought until it scorches our skin or gets in our eyes. But our star is a fascinating and complex object, a gigantic fusion reactor that gives us life. How much do you know about the sun?
This image, captured by NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory (SDO) on March 10, 2012, shows an active region on the sun, seen as the bright spot to the right. Designated AR 1429, the spot has so far produced three X-class flares and numerous M-class flares.
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Solar Quiz: How Well Do You Know Our Sun?
Many of us take the sun for granted, giving it little thought until it scorches our skin or gets in our eyes. But our star is a fascinating and complex object, a gigantic fusion reactor that gives us life. How much do you know about the sun?
This image, captured by NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory (SDO) on March 10, 2012, shows an active region on the sun, seen as the bright spot to the right. Designated AR 1429, the spot has so far produced three X-class flares and numerous M-class flares.
0 of questions complete

The Messenger spacecraft completed the first full map of Mercury's surface last month. The probe's primary mission ran through March 2012, but was granted a one-year extension.

The sun's activity ebbs and flows on an 11-year cycle, and solar weather events are expected to increase this year as the current cycle ramps up toward the solar maximum. The current solar weather cycle is known as Solar Cycle 24.

Follow Denise Chow on Twitter @denisechow. Follow us @SpacedotcomFacebook or Google+. Originally published on SPACE.com.