UCSD tracking huge solar flare that might cause aurora

By Gary Robbins

Wednesday, February 16, 2011 at 6:58 p.m.

NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory took this image of a solar flare erupting 21 degrees south of the sun's equator on February 15th.  

– NASA

NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory took this image of a solar flare erupting 21 degrees south of the sun’s equator on February 15th.

The largest solar flare to erupt on the sun since December 2006 has sent plasma streaming toward Earth, a usually benign but sometimes troublesome phenomenon that’s being monitored by a sophisticated satellite instrument developed by UC San Diego.

Such flares can disrupt telecommunications on Earth, in addition to setting off the wondrous aurora borealis.

“The plasma from the flare contains ionized particles that could cause an aurora borealis in the northern latitudes,” said Bernard Jackson, a research scientist at UCSD’s Center for Astrophysics and Space Science. “The plasma should hit Earth’s magnetosphere on Thursday.”

The flare erupted on Feb. 15th, producing plasma that was imaged today (Wednesday) by the Solar Mass Ejection Imager (SMEI), an instrument that Jackson designed at UCSD. SMEI is traveling aboard Coriolis, a satellite that’s in polar orbit around Earth. The Sun is centered in this image of the whole sky made from a composite of 1500 smaller portions over one 102-minute orbit. The yellow arrow points to an area of brightness that is the plasma ejecta on its way toward Earth.

“This is one of the largest flares of the current solar cycle,” Jackson said on Wednesday night. “It is exciting because the sun is really waking up and coming to life. We’re now able to forecast the arrival of the ejecta in a pretty robust way.”

NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory took this image of a solar flare erupting 21 degrees south of the sun's equator on February 15th.  

– UCSD Center for Astrophysics and Space Science

This image of the sky was taken on Wednesday. The yellow arrow points to the plasma flowing toward Earth. The image was taken by the Solar Mass Ejection Imager, an instrument designed by UCSD’s Bernard Jackson.

UCSD PHYSICS

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