Image: Solar flare
NASA / SDO via @Camilla_SDO
An image from NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory shows an X1.1-class solar flare erupting from the sun on Friday.
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updated 7/6/2012 11:12:08 PM ET 2012-07-07T03:12:08

The most powerful solar flare of the summer erupted from the sun on Friday, marking the latest in a string of strong storms this week from our home star.

The sun storm occurred just after 7 p.m. ET and registered as a class X1.1 solar flare — one of the strongest types of solar flares possible, according to the U.S. Space Weather Prediction Center, run by NOAA and the National Weather Service.

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The huge solar flare erupted from the giant sunspot AR1515, which has already fired off several other powerful storms this week. Space weather scientists were closely watching the sunspot for possible X-class flares.

"And AR1515 did it! X1-class solar flare," officials with NASA's sun-watching Solar Dynamics Observatory wrote in a post to @Camilla_SDO, the mission mascot's Twitter account.

By all accounts, the sunspot group AR1515 is enormous. It stretches across 118,681 miles (191,000 kilometers) of the sun's surface, making it longer than 15 Earths set end to end, NASA solar astrophysicist C. Alex Young told Space.com before the X1.1-class flare erupted. [More Solar Flare Photos from Sunspot AR1515]

While Friday's solar flare marked the strongest of the summer season, which began in late June, it is not the strongest of 2012. In March, the sun fired off an intense X5.4-class solar flare. Today's sun storm marked the fifth X-class solar flare of the year.

The active sun
Earlier Friday, space weather officials warned of more potential flare-ups from sunspot AR1515. The sun has been undergoing substantial activity this entire week from several sunspots on its Earth-facing side.

"The bulk of activity is coming from Region 1515, a moderate-sized active region with a magnetic field complexity that harbors an isolated chance of X-class flare activity," SWPC officials said in an alert released before the X1.1-class flare.

In a new alert announcing the X-class solar flare, SWPC officials said the sun storm could a "wide-area blackout" in the high-frequency radio communications.

Scientists measure the strength of solar flares in terms of energy classes, with X-class flares being the strongest sun storms. Moderate flares rank as class-M storms and can supercharge Earth's auroral displays when aimed at our planet. Class C-solar flares round out the top three categories, but they have little impact on Earth.

Young said there was a chance the sunspot could trigger a massive explosion of solar plasma known as a coronal mass ejection, or CME.

"The region is still in a position to produce an Earth-directed coronal mass ejection but since it is no longer at disk center the chances are less," Young said. "It should also be noted that even at disk center, CMEs don't always head to Earth."

CMEs unleashed from the sun earlier this week were expected to arrive at Earth in the next two days, possibly amping up geomagnetic activity, SWPC officials said.

Solar flare basics
When aimed directly at Earth, X-class solar flares and CMEs can potentially endanger satellites and astronauts in orbit, interfere with GPS and communications signals, and damage power system infrastructure on the ground.

The sun is currently in the midst of an active phase of its 11-year solar weather cycle. The current cycle is called Solar Cycle 24 and is expected to peak in 2013.

Sunspot group AR1515 is by no means the only active region on the sun.

"There is a new active region that is starting to come into view on the lower half of the sun," Young said. "It should be completely on the Earth-facing side of the solar disk in the next day."

If you snap a photo of sunspot AR1515 or any amazing northern lights photos this week and you'd like to share them for a possible story or image gallery, please send images and comments to managing editor Tariq Malik at tmalik@space.com.

You can follow Space.com Managing Editor Tariq Malik on Twitter@tariqjmalik. Follow Space.com on Twitter @Spacedotcom. We're also on Facebook and Google+.

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

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

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  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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