NASA SOHO
The image of the powerful Class X2 solar flare of Feb. 14, 2011, shows how it appeared to both the Solar Dynamics Observatory in extreme ultraviolet light (center sun disk) and the SOHO's C2 coronagraph. This was the largest flare in more than four years.
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updated 2/17/2011 5:14:30 PM ET 2011-02-17T22:14:30

A whopper of a solar flare that fired up earlier this week is wreaking havoc on some radio communications on Earth, and could spark exceptional auroras soon.

The class X solar flare – the most powerful kind of solar flare – spewed from the sun Monday, unleashing a massive wave of charged particles speeding toward Earth. Now the flare has triggered a geomagnetic storm in our planet's magnetic field that interrupted radio communications in China and could disrupt satellites and power grids as well, AFP reported.

Initial effects
Right after the mega solar flare, a first wave of radiation hit Earth.

"There were immediate (within 8 minutes — the speed of light) effects on radio communication and GPS systems right as this flare occurred," said Phil Chamberlin, deputy project scientist for NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory (SDO), which recorded a video of the Valentine's Day flare as it erupted.

But flares like this also churn out streams of protons and electrons called coronal mass ejections (CMEs) that can take 24 hours or more to reach Earth, so we are still feeling its effects.

In fact, three CMEs are making their way toward our planet right now, and are due to arrive "about mid to late day" Thursday, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association (NOAA) reported.

When these particles do arrive, they interact with the Earth's magnetic field to cause chaos in electronics, power and communications. NOAA issues alerts to any industries that could be affected.

"These alerts are sent out to electrical power grid companies, airlines, GPS, military, ocean shipping routes, just to name a few industries that may be affected by the impacts of a solar flare and associated coronal mass ejection (CME) like the one we just had," Chamberlin told Space.com.

Light shows
CMEs don't just cause damage — they can spark special shows of the northern lights, or aurora borealis.

"Further northern lights (aurora) displays are possible sometime over the next two nights if skies are clear and the activity peaks in your local nighttime," according to a report from the British Geological Survey.

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Monday's class X flare was the most powerful solar eruption in four years. It came on the heels of a few less powerful flares in the days before.

Scientists expected this kind of event to start happening now, as the sun is ramping up activity as part of its normal 11-year cycle. Solar maximum is predicted for around 2013.

You can follow Space.com senior writer Clara Moskowitz on Twitter @ ClaraMoskowitz.

© 2013 Space.com. All rights reserved. More from Space.com.

Video: Giant flare erupts from sun

  1. Closed captioning of: Giant flare erupts from sun

    >>> in the meantime, a little science. quite a show in the skies. on monday the sun erupted into what was essentially a temper tantrum of solar flares , the biggest we've seen in four years. that radiation is just hitting the earth now, and it could affect everything from satellites to power grids . a professor of physics at city university in new york and author of "physics of the future" which is coming out next month. always good to see you, michio. what's behind the solar show?

    >> well, have you to realize that every 11 years the north pole and the sun pole of the sun flip, releasing a tidal wave of radiation. this is just a warmup exercise for 2012 , 2013 , when we hit the top of the solar cycle . now, remember that in china radio communications were disrupted. in northern ireland they saw this spectacular display of northern lights last night, and the government has issued warnings to satellite providers, the internet companies, power stations , warning them of a possible disruption because of this whopper of a solar flare .

    >> so when we talk about a disruption, what are we talking about? i mean, could this be really serious?

    >> well, it could be serious, but the good news is, a sun spot is like a rifle. it shoots a burst of radiation in a bullet, and last night that bullet just grazed the earth, hitting behind the planet earth so we missed the worst of that solar cycle . however, we have to prepare for the day when a big solar flare , this bullet of radiation, actually hits the earth. it can wipe out power stations , wipe out telecommunications, the gps, the internet, and in a big solar storm , like what happened in 1859 , 150 years ago, it could actually paralize hundreds of cities simultaneously on the earth.

    >> i guess the good news is that the northern lights can be seen across the northern u.s. , right?

    >> that's right, and certain parts of the united states and canada we expect that some cities may see this spectacular maybe once in a generation fireworks in outer space , compliments of the sun. this is a warm of exercise for the peak of the solar cycle which hits late 2012 and 2013 . also remember that we are very young in the space age . we haven't had many solar cycles affect our satellites, but sooner or later we could experience the big one.

    >> dr. kaku, always great to see you. have a great weekend.

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