NASA captures spectacular images of humongous solar flare

An X-class solar flare that erupted from the sun on March 29 was the best-observed solar flare in history, according to NASA.

NASA
This image shows three of five different views of a monster X-class solar flare on the sun on March 29, 2014. The sun storm was the best-observed solar flare in history, according to NASA.

Four spacecraft and one ground-based observatory recorded the eruption of a powerful X-class solar flare on March 29, making it the best-observed such event in history, NASA officials say.

Solar flares are powerful explosions with energies exceeding that of millions of hydrogen bombs. Never before has an X-class flare — the most energetic type — been observed by so many telescopes at once. A NASA video of the monster solar flare features several views of the March 29 sun storm.

The data from the unprecedented observation could help scientists better understand what catalyzes flares, and possibly predict when they will happen in the future — valuable information, considering that flares can cause radio blackouts on Earth, potentially disrupting aircraft, ship and military communication. [See More Photos of the March 29 Solar Flare (Gallery)]

The National Solar Observatory's Dunn Solar Telescope at Sacramento Peak in New Mexico witnessed the March 29 flare, as did Japan's Hinode satellite and three NASA spacecraft: the Interface Region Imaging Spectrograph (IRIS), Solar Dynamics Observatory (SDO) and Reuven Ramaty High Energy Solar Spectroscopic Imager (RHESSI).

"Some of the spacecraft observe the whole sun all the time, but three of the observatories had coordinated in advance to focus on a specific active region of the sun," Jonathan Cirtain, project scientist for Hinode at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala., said in a statement.

"We need at least a day to program in observation time and the target — so it was extremely fortunate that we caught this X-class flare," Cirtain added.

In addition, NASA's Solar Terrestrial Relations Observatory (STEREO) and the Solar and Heliospheric Observatory (SOHO), a joint NASA/European Space Agency effort, studied a coronal mass ejection (CME) that accompanied the flare.

CMEs, superheated clouds of plasma blasted into space at millions of miles per hour, can wreak havoc if they hit Earth, spawning geomagnetic storms that can potentially disrupt radio communications, GPS signals and power grids.

While countless devices monitor Earth's weather, only a handful of space observatories monitor the sun's activity, each of which has its own specialty. For instance, SDO can take images of the entire sun at once, while IRIS zeroes in on certain layers in the sun's lower atmosphere and takes much higher resolution images.

RHESSI, on the other hand, can only spot the sun's hottest material. Together, however, the three spacecraft, along with Hinode and the Dunn observatory, were able to monitor different features of the flare at various heights above the solar surface and at different temperatures, allowing researchers to get a full picture of the explosive event.

Scientists are now analyzing the data from the multi-telescope observation to understand how solar flares start and peak, NASA officials said.

Follow Joseph Castro on TwitterFollow us @Spacedotcom, Facebook and Google+. Original article on Space.com.

Copyright 2014 SPACE.com, a TechMediaNetwork company. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Dear Reader,

About a year ago, I happened upon this statement about the Monitor in the Harvard Business Review – under the charming heading of “do things that don’t interest you”:

“Many things that end up” being meaningful, writes social scientist Joseph Grenny, “have come from conference workshops, articles, or online videos that began as a chore and ended with an insight. My work in Kenya, for example, was heavily influenced by a Christian Science Monitor article I had forced myself to read 10 years earlier. Sometimes, we call things ‘boring’ simply because they lie outside the box we are currently in.”

If you were to come up with a punchline to a joke about the Monitor, that would probably be it. We’re seen as being global, fair, insightful, and perhaps a bit too earnest. We’re the bran muffin of journalism.

But you know what? We change lives. And I’m going to argue that we change lives precisely because we force open that too-small box that most human beings think they live in.

The Monitor is a peculiar little publication that’s hard for the world to figure out. We’re run by a church, but we’re not only for church members and we’re not about converting people. We’re known as being fair even as the world becomes as polarized as at any time since the newspaper’s founding in 1908.

We have a mission beyond circulation, we want to bridge divides. We’re about kicking down the door of thought everywhere and saying, “You are bigger and more capable than you realize. And we can prove it.”

If you’re looking for bran muffin journalism, you can subscribe to the Monitor for $15. You’ll get the Monitor Weekly magazine, the Monitor Daily email, and unlimited access to CSMonitor.com.