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Two powerful 'X-class' flares erupt on sun (+video)

The sun unleashed two extremely powerful flares Tuesday. NASA tentatively says that particles from the solar storms are probably heading in Earth's direction, but will likely deliver a glancing blow at most.

By Tariq MalikSPACE.com / March 7, 2012

This image from NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory shows the sun as it unleashed an X5.4-class solar flare at 7:04 p.m. EST on Tuesday. The flare appears as the bright spot in the upper left.

NASA/SDO

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The sun unleashed a cosmic double whammy Tuesday (March 6), erupting with two major flares to cap a busy day of powerful solar storms. One of the flares is the most powerful solar eruption of the year, so far.

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At midnight UT the active solar region 1429 unleashed a powerful X5.4-class flare. X-class solar flares are the strongest of the flares. They are major events that can trigger planet-wide radio blackouts and long-lasting radiation storms.

It appears that right after the large X5.4 flare another slightly lower, X1 flare (5 times smaller) occurred. You can clearly see a wave going across the Sun.

NASA says that they are still gathering data and that the Space Weather Forecast Lab will have updates available soon.

Both of the huge flares ranked as X-class storms, the strongest type of solar flares the sun can have. They followed several weaker, but still powerful, sun storms on Tuesday and came just days after another major solar flare on Sunday night.

The first big solar storm was also the most powerful one, ranking as an X5.4-class flare after erupting at 7:02 p.m. EST (0002 March 7 GMT), according to an alert from the Space Weather Prediction Center operated by the National Weather Service. It is the strongest solar flare yet for 2012.

The second event occurred just over an hour later, reaching a maximum strength of X1.3.

Several space-based observatories witnessed the solar flares, including NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory and the agency's Stereo-B spacecraft. The sun-watching observatories spotted huge clouds of charged particles — called coronal mass ejections, or CMEs — erupting from the solar flares.

"First-look data from Stereo-B are not sufficient to determine if the cloud is heading for Earth," astronomer Tony Phillips wrote on his website Spaceweather.com, which monitors space weather events. "Our best guess is 'probably, yes, but not directly toward Earth.' A glancing blow to our planet's magnetosphere is possible on March 8th or 9th." [Worst Solar Storms in History]

According to Phillips, the big X5.4 solar flare erupted from the giant active sunspot AR1429, which was also responsible for the major sun storm on Sunday.

When aimed directly at Earth, X-class solar flares can endanger astronauts and satellites in orbit, interfere with satellite communications and damage power grids on Earth. They can also amplify the Earth's display of northern and southern lights, also known as auroras. Charged particles from the solar storms can interact with Earth's upper atmosphere, resulting in a glow that is typically visible to observers at high northern or southern latitudes.

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