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NASA catches sun sending powerful flare into space

Our sun just had a medium-sized energy burp.

NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory (SDO) caught a mid-level solar flare (opens in new tab) on Thursday (Jan. 20) with a peak at 1:01 a.m. EST (0601 GMT). You can see the flash on the limb, or edge, of the sun, thanks to SDO's powerful imaging.

Because the flare was on the sun's limb, it likely wasn't pointed squarely toward Earth. The solar flare is classified as medium or M5.5 class, powerful enough to potentially cause radio blackouts in polar regions if the flare were to hit our planet square-on.

Related: Sun outburst goes 'cannibal' as fast new blob overtakes a slower one

NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory spotted a solar flare on Jan. 20, 2022. (Image credit: NASA/SDO)

SDO and several other missions keep an eye on space weather, meaning activity from the sun. Flares are often accompanied by a coronal mass ejection of charged particles that can generate auroras on Earth, but the Space Weather Prediction Center (opens in new tab) from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration doesn't yet forecast any meaningful solar activity on Earth.

The sun has an 11-year cycle of solar activity, and is currently in what astronomers call Solar Cycle 25. (That number refers to the cycles that have been closely tracked by scientists.)

At the peak of solar cycles, the sun has a number of sunspots on its surface, which represent concentrations of energy. As magnetic lines tangle in the sunspots, they can "snap" and generate bursts of energy such as flares.

Solar Cycle 25's peak is a little hard to predict, but in 2020 NASA suggested we may see a peak of sunspots, solar flares and coronal mass ejections around 2025 (opens in new tab). But NASA and partner agencies do watch the sun to protect infrastructure (such as power lines) and astronauts on space missions.

"There is no bad weather, just bad preparation," Jake Bleacher, chief scientist for NASA's Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate, said in the 2020 agency release. "Space weather is what it is — our job is to prepare."

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Elizabeth Howell
Staff Writer, Spaceflight

Elizabeth Howell, Ph.D., is a staff writer in the spaceflight channel since 2022. She was contributing writer for Space.com (opens in new tab) for 10 years before that, since 2012. As a proud Trekkie and Canadian, she also tackles topics like diversity, science fiction, astronomy and gaming to help others explore the universe. Elizabeth's on-site reporting includes two human spaceflight launches from Kazakhstan, three space shuttle missions in Florida, and embedded reporting from a simulated Mars mission in Utah. She holds a Ph.D. and M.Sc. in Space Studies from the University of North Dakota, and a Bachelor of Journalism from Canada's Carleton University. Elizabeth is also a post-secondary instructor in communications and science since 2015. Her latest book, Leadership Moments from NASA, is co-written with astronaut Dave Williams. Elizabeth first got interested in space after watching the movie Apollo 13 in 1996, and still wants to be an astronaut someday.