Image: Solar flare
SOHO / ESA / NASA
This extreme ultraviolet image from the LASCO C3 camera on the Solar and Heliospheric Observatory shows an M-class solar flare blazing out from the sun at about the 1 o'clock position late Thursday. A coronagraph disk blocks the glare of the sun itself at the center, and the "snow" in the image is due to radiation hits.
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updated 3/9/2012 5:53:52 PM ET 2012-03-09T22:53:52

The sun is continuing its active streak this week, firing off another solar flare late Thursday from the same region that produced this week's strong solar storm.

An M6.3-class solar flare — a mid-range eruption — spewed from the surface of the sun at 10:53 p.m. ET Thursday, according to an alert from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Space Weather Prediction Center.

Space weather scientists use five categories — A, B, C, M and X — to rank solar flares based on their strength and severity. A-class flares are the weakest types of sun storms, while X-class eruptions are the most powerful.

The M-class solar flare exploded from the same sunspot region, called AR1429, which has been particularly active all week. This dynamic region has already unleashed three strong X-class solar flares. On Tuesday, two powerful X-class eruptions triggered the strongest solar storm in eight years, Bob Rutledge, head of NOAA's Space Weather Forecast Office, told reporters Friday.

"When you take overall intensity and length — how long it persisted — we're confident in saying by some measures, it was the strongest storm we've seen since November 2004," Rutledge said. "That doesn't mean that between November 2004 and today we haven't had brief periods that were more intense. If you look at the storm overall for length and strength, it was the strongest storm since November 2004." [Photos: Solar Flare Eruptions of 2012]

A fast-moving cloud of solar plasma and charged particles, called a coronal mass ejection, was triggered by Tuesday's X-class eruptions, and this wave of energetic particles hit Earth on Thursday. The resulting geomagnetic storm was weaker than expected, but solar physicists say there is a potential for conditions to escalate.

"We still have about a 40 percent chance of seeing another X flare," Rutledge said. "We still think it's fairly likely to see one later today, tomorrow or the next day. We're watching this region closely."

Infographic: The anatomy of a solar storm

A coronal mass ejection from Thursday night's flare is also approaching Earth, and while this one is expected to hit the planet directly on Sunday, experts at the Space Weather Prediction Center are not anticipating the effects to be very severe.

Rutledge said the outburst "could cause storming levels that could reach the G3 (strong) level again, but we don't believe it will have quite the sustained intensity."

Still, the massive sunspot region shows no signs of quieting down, and earlier Friday, NASA scientists said that it also appears to be growing. "Sunspot AR1429 keeps getting bigger! It's more than 7 times the width of Earth," scientists with NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory said via Twitter.

With this sunspot region now facing Earth, at the central meridian of the solar disk, strong solar eruptions have the potential to wreak havoc on the planet. Big coronal mass ejections that hit Earth head-on can potentially knock out power grids and disrupt other electronics infrastructure. Strong solar storms can also disrupt satellites in space and pose radiation risks for astronauts aboard the International Space Station.

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This week's solar storm increased levels of solar radiation and caused geomagnetic storms on Earth, but the effects were milder than expected. As a precaution, commercial airliners rerouted flights over Earth's polar caps, but no other major disruptions were reported, Rutledge said.

Solar storms can also amp up displays of the northern and southern lights, enabling people to see them farther south than normal. On Thursday night, skywatchers reported seeing auroras from states such as Wisconsin, Michigan and Washington, Rutledge said.

Cosmic Log archive on auroral displays

As this week's solar storm begins to taper off, the supercharged aurora displays will begin to decrease around the globe, he added. That's assuming there are no fresh eruptions.

The sun appears to be coming out of an extended lull in activity in its 11-year cycle. The current cycle is known as Solar Cycle 24 and solar activity is expected to ramp up toward its peak in 2013, NASA officials have said.

You can follow Space.com staff writer Denise Chow on Twitter @denisechow. 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.

Video: Earth dodges solar storm

  1. Closed captioning of: Earth dodges solar storm

    >>> at this time last night we were being told by the nation's weather experts at noaa to expect a "severe geomagnetic storm " because of a major flare, a ball of plasma and energy, that had exploded from the surface of the sun on tuesday night. the dire predictions of what it would do to our planet didn't quite come true today. but the headline here may be we're in for more of these storms. tom costello has been watching all of it for us today in where wash.

    >> reporter: hi, brian. good evening. scientists say the planet may have lucked out. they were expecting a category 3 storm. they got a category 1 storm and a minor one at that. and while it hit at about 6:00 a.m . eastern time , because of the earth's spin we seem to have dodged the worst of it. so far we've had no reports of serious problems with radio communications , satellite or gps connectivity or power grids . they've all apparently stayed online. but all of those systems can be vulnerable to a solar storm . what we did get is very colorful northern lights early this morning. take a look at beautiful time lapse video from michigan. that far south. showing beautiful bright-colored auroras in the night sky . astronomers do say we could be in for more solar storms in the coming months as the activity on the sun peaks sometime next year. brian?

    >> let's hope those colors are the only impact. tom costello in d.c. tom, thanks. and

Photos: Month in Space: January 2014

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  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
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