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Old November 3rd 03, 11:30 PM
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Default Sun on Fire, Unleashes 3 More Major Flares

Oh well, radio won't be much, but the sky will be pretty.

-- Stinger

Sun on Fire, Unleashes 3 More Major Flares
By Robert Roy Britt
Senior Science Writer
posted: 10:45 am ET
03 November 2003

The Sun cut loose with three severe flares in less than 24 hours through
Monday morning, bringing to nine the number of major eruptions in less than
two weeks.

Scientists have never witnessed a string of activity like this.

Colorful aurora are expected to grace the skies at high latitudes and
possibly into lower portions of the United States and Europe over the next
two or three nights. Satellites and power grids could once again be put at

Early Monday, Paal Brekke, deputy project manager of the SOHO spacecraft,
was still digesting the significance of the three additional outbursts on
top of two back-to-back monster flares Oct. 28 and 29.

"I think the last week will go into the history books as one of the most
dramatic periods of solar activity we have seen in modern time," Brekke told

None of the latest eruptions was aimed directly at Earth, but glancing blows
are expected.

By the numbers

The flares this week began with an X8 event at 12:25 p.m. ET Sunday. On this
scale, all X-storms are severe, and the number indicates the degree of
severity. An X3 flare erupted at 8:30 p.m. Sunday.

Reports of the third flare are preliminary. It left the Sun at 4:55 a.m.
Monday and is estimated to be an X4. The trio of outbursts comes within a
week of the unprecedented, back-to-back severe flares rated X17 and X10.

The first four flares in this long, amazing series date back to Oct. 22 and
were ranked less than X2.

All flares of this magnitude are capable of disrupting communications
systems and power grids and harming satellites. Two Japanese satellite
failures and a power outage in Sweden were blamed on the first six storms.

The new flares were accompanied by coronal mass ejections of charged
particles that take anywhere from 18 hours to two or three days to reach
Earth. These CMEs represent the brunt of the storm unleashed by a flare.

A storm's precise strength, however, cannot be known until about 30 minutes
before it strikes and depends on the orientation of its magnetic field. If
that field is southward -- opposite the direction of Earth's north-pointing
magnetic field -- then the potential is greatest for accelerating the local
particles that can then damage satellites and fuel aurora.
More aurora

Scientists said the eruptions will generate increased auroras, the colorful
Northern and Southern Lights excited by fast-moving particles, beginning
midday Monday and into Tuesday and beyond. The lights shine because
particles excite gas molecules in the atmosphere.

The chance of severe geomagnetic storming -- the root of auroras -- at
middle latitudes is 30 percent Monday and 50 percent Tuesday, according to
NOAA's Space Environment Center. The precise extent of the aurora at any
moment can't be predicted, but it can be seen in real time with's
Aurora Cam.

The fist flare Sunday was generated by Sunspot 486, which was the site of
last week's major storms. The one late Sunday came from Sunspot 488, which
is huge but has not been a major player until now. Monday's flare also leapt
from Sunspot 488.

Both sunspots are about to rotate off the right side of the Sun's face, so
their associated CMEs were not aimed squarely at Earth. However, these
clouds of hot gas expand as they race into space at up to 5 million mph, so
at least some effect at Earth is predicted.

Sunspots are dark, cooler regions of the solar surface. They are areas of
pent-up magnetic activity, caps on upwelling matter and energy that can blow
at any moment.

No scientist can recall nine X-class flares ever occurring in a 12-day
period. More major flares are possible this week, forecasters said.

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