May 30, 2024


The Sun is a hot mess right now. Solar maximum is fast approaching, and a giant dark spot on the surface of the Sun keeps growing while spewing radiation out to space in the process.

Sunspot R3664 now stretches across nearly 124,300 miles (200,000 kilometers), almost as big as the sunspot that appeared on the Sun’s surface during the Carrington Event—the most intense geomagnetic storm ever recorded, according to Space Weather. The sunspot is now around 15 times larger than Earth, increasingly becoming one of the most active regions on the Sun during this solar cycle.

The sunspot is so large that it can be viewed with eclipse glasses, if you’ve still got those lying around. If you do so, be sure to follow strict safety guidelines to avoid damaging your eyes. The sunspot is currently located in the Sun’s bottom right quadrant.

“R3664 has grown considerably and has become much more magnetically complex,” the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Space Weather Prediction Center reported on Tuesday. “This has led to increased solar flare probabilities over the next several days.”

Earlier this morning, the center reported another solar flare erupting from the Sun that peaked at 5:13 a.m. ET. Solar flares are categorized by their strength, starting at B-class, which are the weakest, all the way up to the strongest, the X-class. Thursday’s flare was classified as a strong X2.2 flare, and it was emitted from the R3664 sunspot.

Sunspots are regions on the Sun where the magnetic field is about 2,500 times stronger than Earth’s, and much higher than anywhere else on the Sun, according to NOAA. They typically occur in pairs and consist of a dark region, called the umbra, surrounded by a lighter region, the penumbra.

Meanwhile, solar flares take place near the sunspots as hot matter interacts with the magnetic field, violently ejecting a burst of plasma away from the Sun and sometimes bombarding Earth as a geomagnetic storm. Our host star goes through an 11-year cycle of fluctuating activity and we are currently coming up on the solar maximum of cycle 25. As a result, the Sun has been exhibiting a rise in the number of sunspots, solar flares, and coronal mass ejections (CMEs).

The past four solar cycles have been relatively calm, but solar cycle 25 is unexpectedly active. Between May 5 and 6, the Sun released three X-class solar flares, while multiple CMEs were also observed on May 7 and 8. These CMEs are expected to merge together and possibly arrive at Earth on Friday or Saturday as a geomagnetic storm, according to NOAA.

Related article: A Monster Solar Storm Could Cost the US $40 Billion Daily

The most intense geomagnetic storm known to us took place in 1859, causing a power outage and wreaking havoc on Earth’s communication systems. The Carrington Event, named after British astronomer Richard Carrington, distorted Earth’s magnetosphere and disrupted telegraph lines and compasses.

This type of intense geomagnetic storm could take place today as they are predicted to occur once every 40 to 60 years, according to Space Weather. A Carrington-level geomagnetic storm could disrupt high-frequency radio communications and GPS systems due to X-rays and ultraviolet light. Such a storm could also endanger astronauts and degrade satellites. A related CME would impact Earth’s magnetic field, potentially causing extensive power outages and making electronic transactions like using credit cards challenging. Given our reliance on technology, the effects on communication systems and power grids could be catastrophic. On the bright side, we’d get to see magnificent magnetic auroras.

The similarity between sunspot R3664 and the sunspot from where the Carrington Event solar flare erupted might be of concern. Scientists are keeping an eye on it, and, equipped with your trusty eclipse glasses, you can watch it, too.

More: Streamers and Loops: What the Sun’s Hyperactive Phase Means for the Upcoming Solar Eclipse

A version of this article originally appeared on Gizmodo.



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