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 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.

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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 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. 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 (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 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: