Image: Solar flare
NASA / SDO
NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory captured this photo of the X-class solar flare unleashed from the sun on Monday.
updated 10/23/2012 5:39:20 PM ET 2012-10-23T21:39:20

The sun unleased a powerful solar flare late Monday, releasing waves of radiation into space that have already caused a short radio blackout on Earth.

The flare erupted from the sunspot AR 1159 (short for Active Region 11598, and reached peak brightness at 11:22 p.m. ET Monday, according to scientists working on NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory, a space telescope that constantly monitors the sun with high-definition cameras. It ranked as an X1.8 solar flare. That's one of the strongest types of solar flares, according to the U.S. Space Weather Prediction Center, which is run by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the National Weather Service.

The same sunspot produced three strong flares before this one in just the two days since it became visible from Earth's perspective.

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"This means more flares are probably in the offing, and they will become increasingly Earth-directed as the sunspot turns toward our planet in the days ahead," astronomer Tony Phillips wrote on Spaceweather.com, a website that tracks skywatching and space weather events.

Solar flares are caused when magnetic activity ramps up in certain patches, called sunspots, on the surface of our star. Scientists measure the strength of solar flares in terms of energy classes, with X-class flares the most powerful sun storms. Moderate flares rank as class M storms and can supercharge Earth's northern lights displays when aimed at our planet. Class C solar flares are the weakest of the bunch and have little effect on Earth. [Photos: Sunspots on Earth's Closest Star]

Monday's solar flare was captured in photos and video by SDO, and appears as a bright white flash coming off the sun. The flare was a short-lived type of solar eruption called an impulsive flare (as opposed to the other type, called a gradual flare).

"Impulsive flares aren't generally associated with severe space weather, and additionally, this region is still several days away from directly facing Earth from center disk," forecasters at the Space Weather Prediction Center wrote. "Nonetheless, the potential for continued activity remains, so stay tuned for updates as Region 1598 makes its way across the visible disk."

Solar flares often release bubbles of charged plasma (called coronal mass ejections) into space that, when they impact Earth, can cause geomagnetic storms that disrupt radio communications and power grids and create especially beautiful displays of the northern and southern lights (auroras). This flare, however, did not unleash a coronal mass ejection, so it is predicted to cause little disruption on Earth and no special auroras. Its powerful radiation was enough, though, to briefly disrupt radios Monday night.

The sun is getting more and more active lately as it approaches an expected peak of magnetic activity in 2013. This activity naturally waxes and wanes on an 11-year weather pattern. The sun's current cycle is called Solar Cycle 24.

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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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