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Solar flare season is heating up

August 11, 2011 | 12:26 pm

  Solar_flare

This week, space junkies have been abuzz (a-blog and a-twitter, you could call it) over a massive solar flare released by the sun early Tuesday morning.

A solar flare is a huge explosion in the sun's atmosphere that sends out a burst of radiation. If that energy is directed at Earth, it can interfere with our GPS systems, power grids and satellite operations. If the energy is not directed at Earth (and on Tuesday it was not), then we can simply enjoy the photos of the flare collected by NASA, such as the one above.

Although the solar flare was the largest seen since 2006, Joe Kunches, a space scientist with the National Oceanic and Atmostpheric Administration, said we're just at the beginning of solar flare season -- a rotation that lasts about 11 years.

"We are coming out of the doldrums of the solar minimum, but now we are seeing more eruptions this year, and we will see even more the year after that," he said. "They are going to get bigger and they are going to get more frequent."

The downside of an increased rate of solar flares is the aforementioned interference with those orbiting human-made objects that we depend on -- satellites that allow us to use our cellphones and access our GPS devices, for example.

There is, however, an upside. If the energy released by a solar flare hits our atmosphere, then it can stir up and energize our own magnetic field and cause geomagnetic storms. And you know what that means? An aurora borealis-type light show that you don't have to be way up north to enjoy.

This happened last week, when a solar flare hit our atmopshere and caused the auroras to move closer to the equator. People were able to take photographs of the displays as far south as Utah and even Colorado.

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Image: A solar flare captured by NASA early Tuesday, the largest one seen in five years. Credit: NASA

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