A 'mixed up' sunspot just fired off a huge solar flare

Scientists are keeping an eye on a sunspot that fired off an X-class flare while "having an identity crisis," according to SpaceWeather.com.

Amplified aurora displays are possible if a coronal mass ejection of charged particles emerges from the "mixed-up" sunspot AR3006, which pointed its flaring blast toward Earth Tuesday (May 10) at 9:55 a.m. EDT (1355 GMT).

The solar flare was caught on camera by NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory and spurred a radio emission alert by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), amid a reported shortwave radio blackout in the Atlantic Ocean region.

Related: The sun's wrath: Worst solar storms in history

The sun produced an X-class flare on May 10, 2022. (Image credit: NASA/SDO/ESA/helioviewer.org)

AR3006's polarity is the reverse of what scientists are expecting, which makes the sunspot "interesting and dangerous," SpaceWeather.com stated. (Sunspot polarity is governed by the current solar cycle.) "If AR3006 flares today, it will be geoeffective. The sunspot is directly facing Earth," the website added.

According to NOAA's Space Weather Prediction Center, which monitors solar flares and other outbursts, a coronal mass ejection (CME) may follow today's flare. CMEs are massive outbursts of solar material burped out by the sun, and scientists can predict whether one will follow a flare based on the radio signature. As of about 12 p.m. EDT (1700 GMT), the agency said that a CME "may be likely," pending further observations.

In general, auroras may happen if a CME happens to intersect with our planet's magnetic field lines. Usually the result is a harmless sky show as atmospheric molecules of gas glow.

Today's flare was classified as an X1.5-class event, making it on the weak side of the strongest category of flare. The sun has fired off several explosions of about the same strength in the past month, along with a bunch of moderate-sized flares. The sun's peak activity is expected to occur in 2025, but there are numerous sunspots on its surface right now.

The sun produced an X-class solar flare on May 10, 2022. (Image credit: NASA/SDO/ESA/helioviewer.org)

More rarely, CMEs can generate trouble in effective infrastructure such as power lines and satellites, which is why scientists keep such a close eye on space weather through numerous missions gazing at our sun.

Both NASA and NOAA monitor the sun all the time; in addition, NASA operates the Parker Solar Probe mission, which is periodically zipping very close to our sun to understand how its superheated outer atmosphere affects solar flares and other phenomena.

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Elizabeth Howell
Staff Writer, Spaceflight

Elizabeth Howell (she/her), Ph.D., is a staff writer in the spaceflight channel since 2022 covering diversity, education and gaming as well. She was contributing writer for Space.com for 10 years before joining full-time. Elizabeth's reporting includes multiple exclusives with the White House and Office of the Vice-President of the United States, an exclusive conversation with aspiring space tourist (and NSYNC bassist) Lance Bass, speaking several times with the International Space Station, witnessing five human spaceflight launches on two continents, flying parabolic, working inside a spacesuit, and participating in a simulated Mars mission. Her latest book, "Why Am I Taller?", is co-written with astronaut Dave Williams. Elizabeth holds a Ph.D. and M.Sc. in Space Studies from the University of North Dakota, a Bachelor of Journalism from Canada's Carleton University and a Bachelor of History from Canada's Athabasca University. Elizabeth is also a post-secondary instructor in communications and science at several institutions since 2015; her experience includes developing and teaching an astronomy course at Canada's Algonquin College (with Indigenous content as well) to more than 1,000 students since 2020. Elizabeth first got interested in space after watching the movie Apollo 13 in 1996, and still wants to be an astronaut someday. Mastodon: https://qoto.org/@howellspace