Image: Solar outburst
NASA via SpaceWeather.com
A composite ultraviolet image from NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory shows a Jan. 23 outburst from the upper right quadrant of the sun's disk that registered just one step below an X-class flare.
updated 1/23/2012 6:10:33 PM ET 2012-01-23T23:10:33

A powerful solar eruption is expected to blast a stream of charged particles past Earth on Tuesday, as the strongest radiation storm since 2005 rages on the sun.

NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory caught an extreme ultraviolet flash from a huge eruption on the sun overnight (10:59 p.m. ET Sunday, or 0359 GMT Monday), according to SpaceWeather.com.

The solar flare spewed from sunspot 1402, a region of the sun that has become increasingly active lately. Several NASA satellites, including the Solar Dynamics Observatory, the Solar Heliospheric Observatory and the STEREO spacecraft, observed the massive sun storm.

A barrage of charged particles triggered by the outburst is expected to hit Earth at around 9 a.m. ET Tuesday, according to experts at the Space Weather Prediction Center, a division of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. [Video and photos of the solar flare]

NOAA's forecasters say this is the strongest solar radiation storm since May 2005. As a precaution, polar flights on Earth are expected to be rerouted, the agency's deputy administrator, Kathy Sullivan, said Monday at the 92nd annual American Meteorological Society meeting in New Orleans.

Scientists call these electromagnetic bursts "coronal mass ejections," and they are closely studied because they can produce potentially harmful geomagnetic storms when electrically charged particles from the sun interact with Earth's magnetic field.

In addition to generating stronger than normal displays of Earth's auroras (also known as the northern and southern lights), geomagnetic storms aimed directly at our planet can also disrupt satellites in orbit, cause widespread communications interference and damage other electronic infrastructures.

"There is little doubt that the cloud is heading in the general direction of Earth," SpaceWeather.com said  in an alert. "A preliminary inspection of SOHO/STEREO imagery suggests that the CME will deliver a strong glancing blow to Earth's magnetic field on Jan. 24-25 as it sails mostly north of our planet."

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Sunday's solar flare was rated an M9-class eruption, which placed it just on the verge of being an X-class flare, the most powerful type of solar storm. M-class sun storms are powerful but midrange, while C-class flares are weaker.

Last week, a separate sunspot group unleashed several M-class flares. SDO scientists said these types of flares are occurring almost daily as the sun's rotation slowly turns the region toward Earth.

The sun's activity waxes and wanes on an 11-year cycle. Currently, our planet's nearest star is in the midst of Solar Cycle 24, and activity is expected to ramp up toward solar maximum in 2013.

Some solar radiation storms can pose a risk to astronauts, but NASA said the six men aboard the International Space Station were in no danger. "The flight surgeons have reviewed the space weather forecasts for the flare and determined that there are no expected adverse effects or actions required to protect the on-orbit crew," NASA spokesman Kelly Humphries told Space.com.

Editor's note: If you snap an amazing northern lights photo, or other skywatching image, and would like to share it for a possible story or gallery, please contact managing editor Tariq Malik at tmalik@space.com.

OurAmazingPlanet Staff Writer Brett Israel contributed to this report from New Orleans. 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: Auroral lights

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  1. St. Patrick's Day green

    The aurora borealis, or northern lights, fill the early morning sky on March 17, 2013, above the Holy Assumption of the Virgin Mary, a Russian Orthodox Church in Kenai, Alaska. (M. Scott Moon / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. Snowy landscape

    The northern lights glow over a snowy Finnish landscape in a photo taken on the night of Jan. 16-17, 2013, by Thomas Kast.

    Watch the time-lapse video on Vimeo. (Thomas Kast) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Starry night

    Swirls of green and red appear in an aurora over Whitehorse in Canada's Yukon Territory on the night of Sept. 3, 2012. The northern lights were sparked by a storm of electrically charged particles that was thrown off by the sun on Aug. 31. (David Cartier, Sr. / NASA via Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. View from above

    NASA astronaut Joe Acaba, flight engineer of the Expedition 32 crew onboard the International Space Station, recorded this image of Aurora Australis, also known as the Southern Lights, on July 15, 2012, from an altitude of approximately 240 miles.The Canadarm2 robot arm is in the foreground. (Joe Acaba / NASA via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Summer delight

    Robert Snache, a photographer living in the Rama First Nation in Ontario, captured this view of the northern lights on the night of July 8-9, 2012. For more about Snache and his work, check out Spirithands Photography on Facebook. (Robert Snache / Spirithands Photography) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Norwegian lights

    Thorbjørn Haagensen took this picture of the northern lights on April 3, 2012, from Hillesøy, close to Tromsø in northern Norway. The winter season is prime time for auroral displays, but with the onset of spring, the northern lights begin to pale up north. "Beginning in the middle of May, the midnight sun brings sunshine all night long," Haagensen said. (Thorbjørn Haagensen) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Heavenly glow

    Jonina Oskarsdottir captured this picture of the northern lights on March 8, 2012, over Faskrudsfjordur, Iceland. "No words can describe the experience of the northern lights tonight," Oskarsdottir told SpaceWeather.com. She used a Canon EOS 5D Mark II camera to take the shot, with a Canon 14mm f/2.8L USM II lens set for ISO 1600 ... and a 1-second exposure. (Jonina Oskarsdottir / via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Alaskan green

    The skies over the frozen Susitna River near Talkeetna, Alaska, are lit up by a display of the northern lights on Jan. 23, 2012. The aurora was enhanced by solar flares in the days preceding the event. (Michael Dinneen / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Spectral scene

    It's almost as if these two separate events of nature were fuming at each other. The northern lights are seen above the ash plume of Iceland's Eyjafjallajokull volcano on the evening of April 22, 2010. (Lucas Jackson / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Halloween treat

    A geomagnetic storm produced a colorful show of aurora borealis in the skies over Hyvinka in southern Finland on the morning of Oct. 31, 2003. (Pekka Sakki / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. Majestic mountains and sky

    The colors of sunrise and the northern lights add to this view of a Perseid meteor streak on Aug. 12, 2000, as seen from the Colorado Rockies. (Jimmy Westlake / Colorado Mountain College) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Graceful ballet of light

    The northern lights dance over the Knik River near Palmer, Alaska, on Nov. 29, 2006. (Bob Martinson / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. Otherworldly feel

    John Carlson of Lutsen, Minn., said he was "surprised by the intense activity of the aurora" on Aug. 29, 2008. He took this beautiful but eerie photograph. (John Carlson / John and Sallie Carlson) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. Midwestern dazzle

    Northern lights are shown above a covered bridge at Wilkinson Pioneer Park in Rock Falls, Iowa, on Nov. 7, 2004. (Arian Schuessler / Mason City Globe Gazette via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
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