Aurora-Triggering Sunspot Cluster Returns, Firing Off Powerful Solar Flare

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By Lydia Amazouz Published on June 25, 2024 13:00
Aurora Triggering Sunspot Cluster Returns, Firing Off Powerful Solar Flare

A particularly long-lived and violent sunspot cluster, designated AR 3723, has rotated back into view for the third time, promptly firing off an M9.3 solar flare.

This cluster, which has previously triggered intense auroras and geomagnetic storms, initially appeared as AR 3664 and then AR 3697. It is responsible for the most intense geomagnetic storm in 20 years. The solar flare on June 23, 2024, was near the threshold of an X-class flare, the highest intensity category for solar flares.

Historical Context and Recent Activity

The sunspot cluster AR 3723 has demonstrated remarkable persistence and intensity, having survived two complete rotations on the far side of the Sun. Initially identified in May as AR 3664, it first rotated out of view on May 15, after causing the most intense geomagnetic storm in two decades.

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This storm generated spectacular auroras seen around the world. When it returned as AR 3697 on May 27, the sunspot fired an X12-class solar flare, the most intense in the current solar cycle, and caused the most severe solar radiation storm since 2017. After rotating out of view again on June 11, it reappeared as AR 3723 on June 23, announcing its return with an M9.3-class flare.

Aurora Triggering Sunspot Cluster Returns, Firing Off Powerful Solar Flare

Solar physicist Keith Strong highlighted the significance of the recent flare on X ( former Twitter) saying : "SO NEAR AND YET SO FAR! A new sunspot region on the SE limb just produced an M9.7 flare (just 3% short of an X flare)."

Solar Flare Classification and Impact

Solar flares are categorized based on their X-ray intensity, ranging from A, B, C, M, to X, with each letter representing a tenfold increase in intensity. The M9.3 flare from AR 3723 is just shy of an X-class flare, indicating its significant power.

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These intense flares can be accompanied by coronal mass ejections (CMEs), where hot gas or plasma is violently expelled from the Sun's outer atmosphere. The historic geomagnetic storm in May was caused by multiple CMEs from AR 3723, which overtook and merged, carrying a portion of the Sun's magnetic field toward Earth.

When the region previously rotated into view as AR 3697, it unleashed an X-class solar flare, triggering radio blackouts across Western Europe and the Eastern United States. Scientists will be keeping a watchful eye on this region as it produced 28 M-class flares and 6 X-class flares during its last rotation as AR 3697. This indicates a continued potential for significant solar activity, which could lead to further geomagnetic storms and auroras visible from Earth.

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Effects on Earth and Future Monitoring

The June 23 solar flare triggered moderate shortwave radio blackouts across Western Europe and Africa. These radio blackouts are common after powerful solar flares due to the intense X-rays and extreme ultraviolet radiation emitted, which ionize the Earth's upper atmosphere. This ionization disrupts high-frequency shortwave radio signals, leading to communication degradation or complete signal loss. Such disturbances can have widespread implications for aviation, maritime operations, and emergency communications.

Moderate shortwave radio blackouts were experienced on June 23.  (Image credit: NOAA/SWPC)

As AR 3723 continues its current rotation, scientists will closely monitor its activity. The sunspot region's ability to produce high-intensity flares and geomagnetic storms makes it a subject of significant interest. The region's repeated activity highlights the dynamic and sometimes unpredictable behavior of the Sun, which can have substantial impacts on space weather and terrestrial technologies.

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The return of the aurora-triggering sunspot cluster AR 3723 with its powerful solar flares underscores the importance of continuous monitoring of solar activity. This persistent and potent sunspot region remains a critical area of study for understanding and predicting space weather events.

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An editor specializing in astronomy and space industry, passionate about uncovering the mysteries of the universe and the technological advances that propel space exploration.

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