Image: Solar flare
Jean-Pierre Brahic
French skywatcher Jean-Pierre Brahic took this photo of the violent solar flare from sunspot 1302 on the sun's surface on Sept. 22. A picture of Earth is superimposed on the photo for scale.
updated 10/2/2011 5:05:11 PM ET 2011-10-02T21:05:11

An intrepid skywatcher has snapped an amazing photograph of a massive solar flare erupting from Sunspot 1302, one of the most active sunspot groups in years.

A sunspot is a blemish on the sun caused by intense magnetic activity. The new photo, captured on Sept. 22 by skywatcher Jean-Pierre Brahic, shows solar plasma magnetically hanging above the sun's surface after Sunspot 1302 unleashed an X-class solar flare. The image includes an inset of Earth for a size comparison.

  1. Space news from NBCNews.com
    1. KARE
      Teen's space mission fueled by social media

      Science editor Alan Boyle's blog: "Astronaut Abby" is at the controls of a social-media machine that is launching the 15-year-old from Minnesota to Kazakhstan this month for the liftoff of the International Space Station's next crew.

    2. Buzz Aldrin's vision for journey to Mars
    3. Giant black hole may be cooking up meals
    4. Watch a 'ring of fire' solar eclipse online

Solar flares are powerful storms on the sun that occur when energy stored in twisted magnetic fields (usually above sunspots) is suddenly released. Flares produce a burst of radiation ranging from radio waves to X-rays and gamma-rays. They can also trigger intense solar explosions, called coronal mass ejections, which can hurl massive amounts of solar material into space.

X-class flares are the biggest of the three categories of flares. They are major events that can trigger planet-wide radio blackouts and long-lasting radiation storms.

Shocking sunspot surprise
When Brahic was observing the sun, he was watching an area that scientists have named Active Region 1302, or AR 1302. He had just come home from work on Sept. 22, when he spotted the dazzling prominence of solar plasma through a sun observation telescope. [Stunning Photos of Solar Flares & Sun Storms]

"And there it was, a shock!" Brahic told Space.com in an email. He then switched to a different telescope to snap a photo of the event. "The image, which I saw through the screen of my computer, was fabulous! This gigantic arc rose above the solar limb … we are really little things in front of these celestial [events]."

The massive sunspot region 1302 produced two X-flares (X1.4 on Sept. 22 and X1.9 on Sept. 24) and is so large it can be seen without a telescope. (WARNING:Never stare at the sun with your unshielded eyes, binoculars or a telescope. Permanent eye damage can result Astronomers and skywatchers use special filters to observe the sun.)

Sunspots expand and contract as they move across the surface of the sun and can be as large as 50,000 miles (80,467 kilometers) in diameter. The diameter of AR 1302 has been measured at a whopping 62,000 miles (99,780 kilometers), several times bigger than Earth.

"The observation of the sun is fascinating," Brahic said. "Our star evolves hour by hour, from minute to minute. We never observe the same thing."

The active sun
Coronal mass ejections from AR 1302 have already caused powerful geomagnetic storms around both of Earth's poles, which can supercharge aurora displays. None of the blasts have been squarely directed at Earth, but this could change as the sunspot group evolves toward our planet in the coming days. [Photos: Sunspots on Earth's Closest Star]

When such solar storms are aimed straight at Earth they can pose a threat to satellites and astronauts in space, as well as communications and power stations on the surface.

AR 1302's magnetic activity is currently crackling with sub X-class flares (M-class and C-class) that could grow into larger eruptions as the sunspot continues to evolve toward Earth.

The sun is currently in an active phase of its 11-year solar weather cycle, known as Solar Cycle 24. The cycle will hit its peak period of activity in 2013, NASA scientists have said.

If you have an amazing skywatching photo you'd like to share for a possible story or image gallery, please contact Space.com managing editor Tariq Malik at tmalik@space.com.

Follow Space.com for the latest in space science and exploration news on Twitter @Spacedotcom and on Facebook.

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

Photos: Month in Space: January 2014

loading photos...
  1. Southern stargazing

    Stars, galaxies and nebulas dot the skies over the European Southern Observatory's La Silla Paranal Observatory in Chile, in a picture released on Jan. 7. This image also shows three of the four movable units that feed light into the Very Large Telescope Interferometer, the world's most advanced optical instrument. Combining to form one larger telescope, they are greater than the sum of their parts: They reveal details that would otherwise be visible only through a telescope as large as the distance between them. (Y. Beletsky / ESO) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. A balloon's view

    Cameras captured the Grandville High School RoboDawgs' balloon floating through Earth's upper atmosphere during its ascent on Dec. 28, 2013. The Grandville RoboDawgs’ first winter balloon launch reached an estimated altitude of 130,000 feet, or about 25 miles, according to coaches Mike Evele and Doug Hepfer. It skyrocketed past the team’s previous 100,000-feet record set in June. The RoboDawgs started with just one robotics team in 1998, but they've grown to support more than 30 teams at public schools in Grandville, Mich. (Kyle Moroney / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Spacemen at work

    Russian cosmonauts Oleg Kotov, right, and Sergey Ryazanskiy perform maintenance on the International Space Station on Jan. 27. During the six-hour, eight-minute spacewalk, Kotov and Ryazanskiy completed the installation of a pair of high-fidelity cameras that experienced connectivity issues during a Dec. 27 spacewalk. The cosmonauts also retrieved scientific gear outside the station's Russian segment. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Special delivery

    The International Space Station's Canadian-built robotic arm moves toward Orbital Sciences Corp.'s Cygnus autonomous cargo craft as it approaches the station for a Jan. 12 delivery. The mountains below are the southwestern Alps. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Accidental art

    A piece of art? A time-lapse photo? A flickering light show? At first glance, this image looks nothing like the images we're used to seeing from the Hubble Space Telescope. But it's a genuine Hubble frame that was released on Jan. 27. Hubble's team suspects that the telescope's Fine Guidance System locked onto a bad guide star, potentially a double star or binary. This caused an error in the tracking system, resulting in a remarkable picture of brightly colored stellar streaks. The prominent red streaks are from stars in the globular cluster NGC 288. (NASA / ESA) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Supersonic test flight

    A camera looking back over Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo's fuselage shows the rocket burn with a Mojave Desert vista in the background during a test flight of the rocket plane on Jan. 10. Cameras were mounted on the exterior of SpaceShipTwo as well as its carrier airplane, WhiteKnightTwo, to monitor the rocket engine's performance. The test was aimed at setting the stage for honest-to-goodness flights into outer space later this year, and eventual commercial space tours.

    More about SpaceShipTwo on PhotoBlog (Virgin Galactic) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Red lagoon

    The VLT Survey Telescope at the European Southern Observatory's Paranal Observatory in Chile captured this richly detailed new image of the Lagoon Nebula, released on Jan. 22. This giant cloud of gas and dust is creating intensely bright young stars, and is home to young stellar clusters. This image is a tiny part of just one of 11 public surveys of the sky now in progress using ESO telescopes. (ESO/VPHAS team) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Fire on the mountain

    This image provided by NASA shows a satellite view of smoke from the Colby Fire, taken by the Multi-angle Imaging SpectroRadiometer aboard NASA's Terra spacecraft as it passed over Southern California on Jan. 16. The fire burned more than 1,863 acres and forced the evacuation of 3,700 people. (NASA via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Where stars are born

    An image captured by NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope shows the Orion Nebula, an immense stellar nursery some 1,500 light-years away. This false-color infrared view, released on Jan. 15, spans about 40 light-years across the region. The brightest portion of the nebula is centered on Orion's young, massive, hot stars, known as the Trapezium Cluster. But Spitzer also can detect stars still in the process of formation, seen here in red hues. (NASA / JPL-Caltech) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Cygnus takes flight

    Orbital Sciences Corp.'s Antares rocket rises from NASA's Wallops Flight Facility on Wallops Island, Va, on Jan. 9. The rocket sent Orbital's Cygnus cargo capsule on its first official resupply mission to the International Space Station. (Chris Perry / NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. A long, long time ago...

    This long-exposure picture from the Hubble Space Telescope, released Jan. 8, is the deepest image ever made of any cluster of galaxies. The cluster known as Abell 2744 appears in the foreground. It contains several hundred galaxies as they looked 3.5 billion years ago. Abell 2744 acts as a gravitational lens to warp space, brightening and magnifying images of nearly 3,000 distant background galaxies. The more distant galaxies appear as they did more than 12 billion years ago, not long after the Big Bang. (NASA / NASA via AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Frosty halo

    Sun dogs are bright spots that appear in the sky around the sun when light is refracted through ice crystals in the atmosphere. These sun dogs appeared on Jan. 5 amid brutally cold temperatures along Highway 83, north of Bismarck, N.D. The temperature was about 22 degrees below zero Fahrenheit, with a 50-below-zero wind chill.

    Slideshow: The Year in Space (Brian Peterson / The Bismarck Tribune via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  1. Editor's note:
    This image contains graphic content that some viewers may find disturbing.

    Click to view the image, or use the buttons above to navigate away.

  2. Editor's note:
    This image contains graphic content that some viewers may find disturbing.

    Click to view the image, or use the buttons above to navigate away.

  3. Editor's note:
    This image contains graphic content that some viewers may find disturbing.

    Click to view the image, or use the buttons above to navigate away.

  4. Editor's note:
    This image contains graphic content that some viewers may find disturbing.

    Click to view the image, or use the buttons above to navigate away.

Discuss:

Discussion comments

,

Most active discussions

  1. votes comments
  2. votes comments
  3. votes comments
  4. votes comments