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A cantankerous sunspot region erupted with a powerful X1.6-class solar flare at just the wrong time Wednesday. The blast was pointing right at us. That means the resulting outburst of electrically charged particles, known as a coronal mass ejection or CME, could have a disruptive effect.
The National Weather Service's Space Weather Prediction Center reported on its Facebook page that the height of the storm is expected to sweep over Earth on Saturday.
Solar storms don't have a significant impact on human health, although high-altitude fliers and astronauts may get an extra dose of radiation. In a worst-case scenario, the storms can deal a blow to orbiting satellites and power grids on Earth. In a best-case scenario, they merely cause heightened auroral displays.
The sunspot region is known as AR2158, and it's been acting up over the past few days. Wednesday's flare was detected at about 1:45 p.m. ET and was strong enough to cause a wide-area blackout of high-frequency radio communication for about an hour.
X-class flares represent the most powerful kind of solar blasts (as opposed to medium M-class flares or the lower-energy A, B or C classes). Solar scientists spotted a triple-X outburst in June, but none of those blasts was directed toward Earth.
Update for 9:40 p.m. ET Sept. 11: The Space Weather Prediction Center confirms that there was a CME outburst, and geomagnetic activity is already on the rise due to an earlier outburst this week. The additive effect of all this solar activity could create a serious G3 storm on Saturday. That means power grid operators and satellite companies will have to be on guard, but it's nowhere near the catastrophe that some folks seem to be wringing their hands over. Stay tuned for updates on Friday.