Definitions

solar-flare

solar flare

Sudden intense brightening of a small part of the Sun's surface, often near a sunspot group. Flares develop in a few minutes and may last several hours, releasing intense X rays and streams of energetic particles. They appear to be connected with changes in the Sun's magnetic fields during the solar cycle. The ejected particles take a day or two to reach the vicinity of Earth, where they can disrupt radio communications and cause auroras, and may pose a radiation hazard to astronauts.

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A solar flare is a violent explosion in a star's (like the Sun's) atmosphere releasing as much energy as 6 × 1025 Joules. Solar flares take place in the solar corona and chromosphere, heating plasma to tens of millions of kelvins and accelerating electrons, protons and heavier ions to near the speed of light. They produce electromagnetic radiation across the electromagnetic spectrum at all wavelengths from long-wave radio to the shortest wavelength gamma rays. Most flares occur in active regions around sunspots, where intense magnetic fields emerge from the Sun's surface into the corona. Flares are powered by the sudden (timescales of minutes to tens of minutes) release of magnetic energy stored in the corona.

X-rays and UV radiation emitted by solar flares can affect Earth's ionosphere and disrupt long-range radio communications. Direct radio emission at decimetric wavelengths may disturb operation of radars and other devices operating at these frequencies.

Solar flares were first observed on the Sun by Richard Christopher Carrington and independently by Richard Hodgson in 1859 as localized brightenings in a sunspot group. Stellar flares have also been observed on a variety of other stars.

The frequency of occurrence of solar flares varies, from several per day when the Sun is particularly "active" to less than one each week when the Sun is "quiet". Large flares are less frequent than smaller ones. Solar activity varies with an 11-year cycle (the solar cycle). At the peak of the cycle there are typically more sunspots on the Sun, and hence more solar flares.

Classification of flares

Solar flares are classified as A, B, C, M or X according to the peak flux (in watts per square meter, W/m²) of 100 to 800 picometer X-rays near Earth, as measured on the GOES spacecraft. Each class has a peak flux ten times greater than the preceding one, with X class flares having a peak flux of order 10-4 W/m². Within a class there is a linear scale from 1 to 9, so an X2 flare is twice as powerful as an X1 flare, and is four times more powerful than an M5 flare. The more powerful M and X class flares are often associated with a variety of effects on the near-Earth space environment. Although the GOES classification is commonly used to indicate the size of a flare, it is only one measure.

Two of the largest GOES flares were the X20 events (2 mW/m²) recorded on August 16, 1990 and April 2, 2001. However, these events were outshone by a flare on November 4, 2003 that was the most powerful X-ray flare ever recorded. This flare was originally classified as X28 (2.8 mW/m²). However, the GOES detectors were saturated at the peak of the flare, and it is now thought that the flare was between X40 (4.0 mW/m²) and X45 (4.5 mW/m²), based on the influence of the event on the earth's atmosphere . The flare originated in sunspot region 10486, which is shown in the illustration above several days before the flare.

Hazards

Solar flares and associated Coronal Mass Ejections (CMEs) strongly influence our local space weather. They produce streams of highly energetic particles in the solar wind and the Earth's magnetosphere that can present radiation hazards to spacecraft and astronauts. The soft X-ray flux of X class flares increases the ionisation of the upper atmosphere, which can interfere with short-wave radio communication, and can increase the drag on low orbiting satellites, leading to orbital decay. Energetic particles in the magnetosphere contribute to the aurora borealis and aurora australis.

Solar flares release a cascade of high energy particles known as a proton storm. Protons can pass through the human body, doing biochemical damage. Most proton storms take two or more hours from the time of visual detection to reach Earth. A solar flare on January 20, 2005 released the highest concentration of protons ever directly measured, taking only 15 minutes after observation to reach Earth, indicating a velocity of approximately one-third light speed.

The radiation risk posed by solar flares and CMEs is one of the major concerns in discussions of manned missions to Mars or to the moon. Some kind of physical or magnetic shielding would be required to protect the astronauts. Originally it was thought that astronauts would have two hours time to get into shelter, but based on the January 20, 2005 event, they may have as little as 15 minutes to do so.

Flare Observations

The following missions have flares as their main observation target.

  • Yohkoh - The Yohkoh (originally Solar A) spacecraft observed the Sun with a variety of instruments from its launch in 1991 until its failure in 2001. The observations spanned a period from one solar maximum to the next. Two instruments of particular use for flare observations were the Soft X-ray Telescope (SXT), a glancing incidence low energy X-ray telescope, and the Hard X-ray Telescope (HXT), a collimation counting instrument which produced images in higher energy X-ray by image synthesis.
  • GOES - The GOES spacecraft have measured the soft X-ray flux from the Sun since the mid 1970s. GOES observations are used to classify the size of solar flares.
  • RHESSI - RHESSI is designed to image solar flares in energetic photons from soft X rays (~3 keV) to gamma rays (up to ~20 MeV) and to provide high resolution spectroscopy up to gamma-ray energies of ~20 MeV. Furthermore, it has the capability to perform spatially resolved spectroscopy with high spectral resolution.
  • Hinode - A new spacecraft, originally called Solar B, was launched by the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency in September 2006 to observe solar flares in more precise detail. Its instrumentation, supplied by an international collaboration including Norway, the U.K., and the U.S., focuses on the powerful magnetic fields thought to be the source of solar flares. Such studies shed light on the causes of this activity, possibly helping to forecast future flares and thus minimize their dangerous effects on to satellites and astronauts..

The most powerful flare of the last 500 years is believed to have occurred in September 1859: it was seen by British astronomer Richard Carrington and left a trace in Greenland ice in the form of nitrates and beryllium-10, which allow its strength to be measured today (New Scientist, 2005).

Prediction

Current methods of flare prediction are probabilistic, and there is no certain indication that an active region on the Sun will produce a flare. However, many properties of sunspots and active regions correlate with flaring. For example, magnetically complex regions (based on line of sight magnetic field) called delta spots produce most large flares. A simple scheme of sunspot classification due to McIntosh is commonly used as a starting point for flare prediction. Predictions are usually stated in terms of probabilities for occurrence of flares above M or X GOES class with 24 or 48 hours. The U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) issues forecasts of this kind.

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