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Sun lets loose monumental flare

An image of the sun taken on Tuesday, April 3, from Learmonth, Australia  

(CNN) -- Increasingly active in recent weeks, the sun has unleashed one the most powerful solar flares in 25 years, solar scientists said Tuesday.

The intense spike of energy originated late Monday from a gigantic sunspot, which has already spawned numerous solar storms that in recent days disrupted communications and produced auroras on Earth.

Space weather forecasters called the latest solar salvo, which caused static on a radio frequency that mariners and pilots use to navigate, the strongest flare of the sun's current 11-year cycle of activity.

Pilots in northern regions of the planet were kept waiting for takeoff after the flare occurred, a U.S. space weather forecaster said.

These pictures were taken between March 20 and 24 in Fairbanks, Alaska, by Jan Curtis with The Alaska Climate Research Center


"It was more powerful than the famous March 6, 1989 flare which was related to the disruption of the power grids in Canada," said Paal Brekke, a project scientist with the Solar and Heliospheric Observatory. SOHO is one of a fleet of spacecraft monitoring solar activity and its effects on the Earth.

Radiation from the flare was so intense it saturated the X-ray detectors on two spacecraft used by the U.S. government to determine the strength of the solar blasts. The salvo was one of the most powerful recorded since regular X-ray data became available in 1976.

The sunspot spawned what's called a coronal mass ejection, sending tons of radiation and highly energized particles into space. Scientists said most of the latest storm should miss the Earth, meaning it will produce minimal effects on our planet.

The sun has spewed out numerous intense spikes of energy over the past week, including several that did hit Earth, producing geomagnetic storms and some of the best aurora displays in years.

Veteran aurora watchers described the weekend display as the most photogenic of the current solar cycle. Nighttime aurora lights dazzled observers as far south as Mexico.

While the solar activity often produces a magnificent aurora in the night sky, it also can interfere with satellites, aviation radar, radio signals and other electronic equipment.

The source of most of the recent storms, a sunspot known as active region 9393 that is 13 times the size of Earth. First spotted last week, it seems to be diminishing but could still produce more surprises before it crosses to the far side of the sun on April 5.

A large scale image of region 9393 taken on Tuesday, April 3  

"The region has shifted slightly to the side, (but) we could still experience some significant storming from the area of the sun," said NOAA space weather forecaster Gary Heckman.

Moreover, a sunspot brewing on the far side of the sun could shake up Earth's geomagnetic weather when it rotates toward the planet in a few days.

Just past the peak of an 11-year cycle of activity, the sun is rife with sunspots -- cooler, darker regions on the surface caused by a concentration of temporarily distorted magnetic fields. Sunspots spawn tremendous eruptions or flares into the atmosphere, which hurl billions of tons electrified gas into space.

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NOAA's Space Weather Now

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4:30pm ET, 4/16

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