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Science & Space

Sun 'mega-flare' was largest on record

By Kate Tobin and Richard Stenger

The bright flash on the right edge of the sun reveals the source of the November 4 blast.
The bright flash on the right edge of the sun reveals the source of the November 4 blast.

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(CNN) -- The massive solar flare that erupted from the sun this week has been classified as the largest in three decades of monitoring, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Space Environment Center said Thursday.

The previous record holder occurred on April 2, 2001. An active region of sunspots on the solar face has spawned a number of powerful flares over the last two weeks, including the most powerful one on Tuesday and third largest salvo on record on October 28.

"Just as solar scientists were ready to start breathing normally again, active region 10486 blasted off yet another mega-flare," Paal Brekke of the European Space Agency said of the November 4th flare. "This one saturated the X-ray detectors on the NOAA's GOES satellites that monitor the sun."

Solar flares often herald coronal mass ejections, or CMEs, clouds of electrified gas called plasma that explode from the sun and wash out over the solar system.

If the CME hits Earth, the charged particles can interact with the planet's electromagnetic field and result in a geomagnetic storm. In extreme cases, the storms can interfere with satellite operations or overload power grids on Earth.

They can also produce spectacular displays of the northern and southern lights. The coronal mass ejection coupled with Tuesday's flare was not headed in our direction, so it did not have a strong impact on Earth.

Space weather forecasters say this recent string of strong solar flares is not consistent with normal solar behavior. The sun, which follows an 11-year activity cycle, had been mostly quieting down since the last peak in 2000.

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