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Solar Flare Will Hit Earth Thursday; Northern Lights May Expand South

<strong>Coming At You:</strong> An image created by NASA combines two pictures from its Solar Dynamics Observatory. One shows the location of a large sunspot; the other shows Tuesday's massive solar flare.
Coming At You: An image created by NASA combines two pictures from its Solar Dynamics Observatory. One shows the location of a large sunspot; the other shows Tuesday's massive solar flare.

Tired of reading about intensely cold temperatures? Here's some news that might help take your mind off this week's deep freeze. It could even give you an excuse to hang around outside Thursday.

An intense solar flare is being blamed for disrupting a NASA mission and could force airlines to reroute some flights. That's the bad news. The good news is that the flare is also expected to expand the viewing field of the aurora borealis southward, perhaps down to Colorado and Illinois.

Update at 3:15 p.m. ET, Thursday: Ejection Has Arrived

The coronal mass ejection was observed "just upstream of Earth" at 2:32 p.m. ET, according to an update from NASA this afternoon. The agency says it's too early to tell how the CME's magnetic structure might affect the planet.

But NASA's Space Weather Prediction Center also notes, "Aurora watchers may be in luck for tonight. The ongoing Solar Radiation Storm, currently at S2 (Moderate) levels, is seeing a modest enhancement with this shock passage."

The agency says to expect S3 (strong) geomagnetic storm activity on Jan. 9 and 10.

If you'd like to hear what all that radiation sounds like, you can tune in to a streaming Internet radio station that uses data from a lunar orbiter to interpret space weather into music (of a sort).

Update at 1:45 p.m. ET, Thursday: CME's Arrival 'Overdue'

It seems the mass of charged particles and magnetic field hurtling toward Earth is not in as big a hurry as NASA first thought. As Scott wrote earlier today, the space agency had this to say in its latest update:

"The CME, originally expected to arrive around 0800 UTC (3:00 a.m. EST) today, January 9, is now slightly overdue. However, pre-arrival signatures from EPAM data on the ACE spacecraft still show this transient en route."

CME, you'll recall, stands for coronal mass ejection, the term for the massive emission that accompanied an intense solar flare earlier this week. We choose not to interpret NASA's calling the CME "transient" as a case of the agency being judgy.

Our original post continues:

From the AP:

"Federal space weather forecaster Joe Kunches said the sun shot out a strong solar flare late Tuesday, which should arrive at Earth early Thursday. It should shake up Earth's magnetic field and expand the aurora borealis south, possibly as far south as Colorado and central Illinois. He said best viewing would probably be Thursday evening, weather permitting."

As solar flares go, "X" denotes the strongest class. The one speeding toward Earth has been classified at the lower end of the spectrum, as an X1.2 flare. Still, the U.S. Space Weather Prediction Center says it's moving at a "fairly fast" rate and will arrive very early Thursday morning.

"Full evaluation and modeling of this event has refined the forecast and indicates a fairly direct interaction with Earth," the center adds.

As for what that interaction might look like, NASA tells us that we humans aren't directly at risk. But massive solar flares have been linked to disruptions in GPS and radio signals here on Earth.

"Economies around the world have become increasingly vulnerable to the ever-changing nature of the sun," the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration tells us. "Solar flares can disrupt power grids, interfere with high-frequency airline and military communications, disrupt Global Positioning System (GPS) signals, interrupt civilian communications, and blanket the Earth's upper atmosphere with hazardous radiation."

Shedding light (sorry) on how that works, NASA says that Tuesday's flare "was also associated with a coronal mass ejection, or CME, another solar phenomenon that can send billions of tons of particles into space that can reach Earth one to three days later. These particles cannot travel through the atmosphere to harm humans on Earth, but they can affect electronic systems in satellites and on the ground."

And they travel quickly. Last year, NASA calculated that two CMEs were hurtling toward Earth at well over 1,000 miles a second.

If you're in an area that might get a good glimpse of the Northern Lights, you may want to check out the Space Weather Center's Aurora Forecast, which maps the "probability of visible aurora," or the University of Alaska's similar forecast, which has different maps that could help you pinpoint your area.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Bill Chappell is a writer and editor on the News Desk in the heart of NPR's newsroom in Washington, D.C.

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