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To be honest, I don’t spend much time staring at the sun, and I would suggest that you don’t either. However, astronomers and other scientists have some great methods that allow them to observe and record the activity happening on the sun.
One of the most well known phenomenons that occur up on our star are solar flares. A flare is a sudden, rapid and intense variation in light. On the sun, these flares occur when magnetic energy that has built up in the solar atmosphere is suddenly released out into space. This release of energy is emitted across the entire electromagnetic spectrum, everything from radio waves, visible light and gamma rays. The amount of energy released in a solar flare is monumental; think millions of 100-megaton hydrogen bombs exploding simultaneously! Solar flares can occur anywhere from less than one a week and up to several a day. The frequency correlates to the Sun’s 11-year cycle.
So you might be saying, “so what?” The “so what” is that solar flares affect us here on earth. Solar flares generate dangerous particles and radiation. However, for the most part, or atmosphere and magnetic field keep us safe. But what about the area surrounding earth?
Satellites in particular are affected by solar flares. When a flare occurs it heats our atmosphere and expands it. This expansion increases the drag on satellites and decreases their lifespan. Additionally the electromagnetic pulse associated with flares can affect the electronics on the satellite.
The most serious threat to our lifestyle occurs during geomagnetic storms, which are caused by coronal mass ejections-a phenomenon related to solar flares. During these geomagnetic storms, the shockwaves can cause high currents in power lines, which in turn can blow out transformers. The most famous blackout caused by a solar storm was in 1989 when the Hydro-Quebec Power Authority and the entire Quebec power grid collapsed, affecting 6 million people!
These events are just one more reminder of the power of our sun. If you are interested in learning more about solar flares, National Geographic TV has an episode on the subject.