New volatile sunspot grows 4 times bigger than the Earth; Will it unleash a solar storm?
As astronomers continue to monitor sunspot AR3311 for any signs of an explosion, a new sunspot is making its mark on the Sun. This new sunspot was virtually invisible to NASA and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) telescopes. But in just 24 hours, it has grown as much as four Earths combined! This exponential growth is also due to the large amount of unstable magnetic field that it carries within itself. Scientists were expecting an X-class solar flare and a resulting solar storm from the existing sunspot, and the addition of this new one will complicate the situation.
According to a SpaceWeather.com report, “Yesterday, sunspot AR3315 was almost invisible. Today it is four times wider than Earth. The rapidly growing sunspot is penetrating the surface of the sun’s southern hemisphere. Its rapid development could lead to explosive instabilities and solar flares.”
Fear of solar storm as sunspot grows 4 times wider than Earth
There are two factors that govern whether or not a sunspot can explode and send solar storms toward Earth. The first is the size of the sunspot. The bigger a sunspot is, the higher the magnetic flux it contains within itself. This region is at odds with the rest of the Sun’s surface and normal magnetic field lines. As the conflict increases, the pressure inside the sunspot increases and it explodes. However, not all large sunspots explode.
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This brings us to the second factor which is how concentrated the magnetic flux is within a sunspot. The darker a sunspot appears on the Sun, the higher the chances of an explosion. The darker sunspots also have a significantly lower temperature leading to frequent outbursts, so heat convection can continue.
Frighteningly, this sunspot meets both of these criteria and that is why there is a chance that a strong solar storm could hit the Earth. An extreme solar storm (class G5) can cause great damage to our planet. In a worst-case scenario, the resulting solar storm could equal the Carrington event of 1859, which is the largest solar storm recorded on Earth. Such a solar storm today can be quite scary. It can disrupt GPS, disrupt cellular and internet networks, and even cause a massive power outage by corrupting power grids. Even electronic devices on Earth are not safe from it.
The role of NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory
NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory (SDO) carries a full suite of instruments to observe the Sun and has done so since 2010. It uses three very important instruments to gather data from various solar activities. They include the Helioseismic and Magnetic Imager (HMI) which takes high-resolution measurements of the longitudinal and vector magnetic field over the entire visible solar disk, the Extreme Ultraviolet Variability Experiment (EVE) which measures the Sun’s extreme ultraviolet irradiance, and the Imager Assembly Atmospheric (AIA) which provides continuous full disk observations of the solar chromosphere and corona in seven extreme ultraviolet (EUV) channels.