Sunspot 1158 ain't done yet

By Phil Plait | February 15, 2011 9:07 am

The sunspot that erupted on the 13th, producing an M-class flare (medium to strong), has blown its top again: around 02:00 UT last night it produced a bigger, X-class flare! We’re not in any danger from this, but it’s pretty cool:

I think the location of sunspot 1158 is obvious enough. This is an image from the Solar Dynamics Observatory (which just celebrated its first anniversary) when the flare was peaking. It shows the Sun in the far ultra-violet (and is color-coded as green), where energetic events are more obvious. You can see some other active magnetic regions, too. None of those has produced any flares.

You can read all about how this works in my previous post. While this was a stronger flare — it was an X2 class, making it about 3 times more powerful than the flare from the other day — again, we’re in no real danger from it. But if you live in the extreme north or south you should watch for aurorae over the next couple of nights!

Astronomers keep an eye on these events, and if there is any threat to satellites or astronauts they issue an alert. The Sun is capable of producing flares 20 times more powerful than this one at least (in 2003 we saw a few), and those are enough to do some actual harm to space-based assets. As the Sun gets more tempestuous over the next couple of years, scientists will be watching it very carefully.

Tip o’ the lead shielding to Chris Pirillo. Image credit: NASA/SDO

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Cool stuff, Pretty pictures
MORE ABOUT: SDO, solar flare, Sun, sunspot

Comments (30)

  1. Foo Bar

    Do you plan on returning to having the full article published in your RSS feed? It’s really annoying to always be forced to click through to the site here.

  2. Phil,

    I find your insights fascinating, and I read an interesting article about a pair of gamma-ray bursts in

    What causes bursts like that, will the sun ever make one like that (in the distant future), and What does an event like that do to things around it? What have they learned about them after being able to observe it?

    Basically I am REALLY REALLY hoping you could talk about that event and comment on it.



  3. Rick J

    Hey Phil,
    This is really cool and interesting. Is the Sun capable of producing a burst that couldn’t completely be absorbed by our atmosphere…that would be harmful to life on earth?


  4. An X2 flare shot right over home plate! Did NASA phone ISS FUBAR to tell asstronaughts that Cerenkov flashes in their eyes should be ignored? Let’s go to Mars during an active sun. What harm can protons do? We’re full of ’em!

    Momma, don’t let your flash drives be cooked in orbit.

  5. Quiet Desperation

    We’re not in any danger

    Which means, of course, WE’RE DOOMED! Or maybe domed.

    This flare is clearly caused by Planet Nibiru X!

    Quick! To the hastily constructed rocket ships!

  6. Kevin

    Bring on the aurorae!!

  7. Anders

    Saw the aurora here in Bodø last night, it was spectacular, even from the middle of the city, with citylights and all sorts of light-pollution. there was a vertical carpet stretching the entire sky, and pulsating green lights all around. Its clear skies tonight too, so there may still be some coming up later!

  8. @Luigi (#2), no, our sun will never get to that state. At most, our sun will end up as a white dwarf, not nearly massive enough to make a “magetar” as cited in the link.

    @Rick J (#4), not that I am aware of by any normal processes that we need to worry about.

  9. @Luigi #2: Gamma ray bursts are associated with neutron stars and black holes, so the sun is unlikely to emit anything like that.

    Phil talks about gamma ray bursts and their effects in graphic detail in Death from the Skies!

  10. RwFlynn

    Can’t wait til this event is over so we can watch it in it’s entirety! For now I’ll have to settle for this.

  11. Joseph

    @ Phil

    Hello Phil.

    I was wondering what kinds of things does the average person have to worry about during a bad set of peak storms?

    I know power grids and telecommunications can and have been affected, but what about house hold electronics?

    As we approach what scientists believe may be a particularly active peak of the cycle should I be Faraday Caging my computer room? Or whole house? Will my car (with all it’s fancy computer controls) become a large paper weight?

    I am sure as the storms get stronger there will be stupid hysteria over it, best to start shooting down the hype now I think.

  12. Maria

    I’m curious as well, I’m flying on Wednesday. Is there an increased risk of exposure at those types of altitudes? I understand there is but I’d like to get some perspective on it. Like, the increase exposure is equivalent to an additional hour of flight versus getting 300 extra x-rays in a life time?

  13. Joseph G

    Wow! I’m trying to picture how bright something has to be in order to cause image artifacts like that in a camera designed to look at the freakin’ sun!

  14. As bad as it would be for modern society to have a massive solar flare that knocks out things like power and such, it would definitely get people to perk up about upgrading infrastructure like the next generation power grid. Then we could have a nice efficient safer means to get electricity… instead of having a fallen tree knock out power to an entire neighborhood for three days or another one of those classic massive blackouts like in the Northeast years ago.

  15. reidh

    SYDNEY — Electromagnetic radiation is racing towards Earth after more large explosions in the sun’s atmosphere, threatening to disrupt communications, satellites and power services, Australian space watchers said on Wednesday.
    The latest solar flare-up was small compared to the monster eruption on April 2, but its position on the sun is ideal for powerful magnetic gas clouds to hit the Earth, where they could produce dazzling aurora — the northern or southern lights.
    “The latest events show all the indications of producing a very big geomagnetic storm here on Earth,” said Richard Thompson of the Australian Space Weather Agency.
    The agency predicts the effects of the latest burst would hit the Earth Wednesday night in Australia and possibly continue into Thursday.
    Sunspots can send out clouds of electromagnetic plasma, called coronal mass ejections and are composed of a hot ionized gas of charged solar particles. Such bursts of energy have previously knocked satellites offline.
    In 1989, the last big event shut down Quebec’s power grid, affecting 6 million customers. Thompson said really big geomagnetic storms can even speed up the corrosion of pipelines.
    The sun is currently in the most active solar storm period in more than a decade. The sun goes through 11-year cycles in sunspot activity.
    A reasonably large flare-up at the end of March caused the southern lights to flare up throughout southern Australia.
    One of the largest sunspots ever seen followed on April 2, but its flare shot out away from Earth.
    The latest solar flare was about a fifth the size of the April 2 sunspot, which had a diameter of 86,800 miles.
    But Thompson said size did not matter.
    Sunspots are believed to be an accumulation of magnetic fields which get twisted due to the sun’s rotation. The degree of twist seems to determine the strength.
    “This one is particularly nice … and it’s nicely located,” he said.

    You cannot expect that these kinds of “events” do not cause “Global Warming”

  16. Messier Tidy Upper

    @ ^ riedh : You cannot expect that these kinds of “events” do not cause “Global Warming”

    Bzzt. Wrong.

    See :


    For why

    & also see this :

    tangentially related but cool and giving an extra perspective on that “its the Sun’s fault” canard.

    Finally, do you really think the climatologists who are warning us about the Anthropogenic Global Warming caused by our greenhouse gas emissions are so stupid that they have failed to investigate the Sun’s effect – and rule it out as the cause or at least notice that its not the key factor at work with this Global Warming – beforehand? Seriously, do you?

  17. Joseph G

    @17 MTU: But of course! The poster in question is obviously far more intelligent then hundreds of thousands of PhDs. It’s funny how that works, that an entire branch of science can just overlook something that simple – thank God for those few brave geniuses on the internet who can correct these egregious oversights and set those darned impulsive pot-smoking hippy scientists straight.

  18. Patrick

    In bed at night, a climate change denier sleeps, his eyes rapidly moving across the setting of his favorite dream…

    A huge climatology conference. Hundreds of climate scientists and policy makers in attendance. A scientist, giving a speech on rising global temperatures, complete with Powerpoint slides and laser pointers. The denier, in the audience, suddenly struck by inspiration. He dashes for the stage with the speed of Al Gore’s Internet. In his dream he is unstoppable. He is a man with a capital-C Cause. The drone of the climatologist is cut off as the denier shoves him aside, taking the podium. Microphone feedback whines for a moment before the denier speaks.

    “Did you all ever think that maybe it’s the sun?

    The denier’s imagination echoes with the sound of a thousand hands slapping a thousand foreheads and a thousand voices saying “Ah, damn! I knew I forgot something!

  19. Joseph G

    I love that image. Kilofacepalms!

  20. Bastiaan

    Do you plan on returning to having the full article published in your RSS feed? It’s really annoying to always be forced to click through to the site here.

    Good point! Especially on a smartphone.

    Or is this a click-through-for-the-adverts scheme? That would be quite a shame.

  21. Mike Torr

    +1 for the full story on RSS please, if possible! Bastiaan has a good point: these pages can be pretty heavy on loading, due to images and/or volume of comments, and this is often a problem for me when browsing by phone.

  22. Messier Tidy Upper

    Latest news :

    Have just seen on the late night TV (ABC – OZ) news headline scrolling bar at the bottom of the screen thingy (whatever you call that) :

    solar flares to jam Earth’s communications

    My immediate reaction? Well I wonder what the BA has to say about that particular scare story. Then again, maybe this time .. & remembering some of the observations in the solar flares chapter of Death from the Skies .. Hmm.. Scare story media beat-up or not?

    Another sister TV channel (ABC-24 Oz news channel) had a similar scrolling headline – but no actual report that I caught – about “scientists worried by three waves of charged particles coming from the Sun” which sounds somewhat more reasonable.

  23. Messier Tidy Upper

    @18. Joseph G : Indeed. It seems that everyone knows more climatology just from reading contrarian websites than those pesky climatologists with all their years (decades in most cases) of dedicated study and practice and careful observations. Natch, it *never* occurs to the climatologist expert elite that – *Gasp! Shock! Horror!* – our Sun might be the cuase of GW and that idea is, like, a total revelation to them an’ all. :roll:

    @19. Patrick :

    The drone of the climatologist is cut off as the denier shoves him aside, taking the podium. Microphone feedback whines for a moment before the denier speaks.
    “Did you all ever think that maybe it’s the sun?”
    The denier’s imagination echoes with the sound of a thousand hands slapping a thousand foreheads and a thousand voices saying “Ah, damn! I knew I forgot something!“

    While in the waking world there’s a collective climatological groan and rolling of the eyes whenever this particular stale old fish gets raised by that contrarian for some odd reason, its almost like, .. OMG! They’ve actually heard it before! 😉

    I’m pretty cynical and misanthropic by now but sometimes the sheer depth of human stupidity just boggles my mind. Because some folks do seem to think the climatologists are just that dumb. :-(


    “Two things are infinite, the universe and human stupidity and I’m not sure about the universe.”
    – Albert Einstein

  24. Bogdan

    In photos like the one in this post (the scale is relevant, and probably the wavelength), the “surface” of the Sun looks like it’s mostly flat, with protuberances here and there. (In this photo there are lots of them, but you can see what I mean in the bottom part, which I assume to be South, the darker area.)

    I don’t quite get why that is. I’d expect it be more fractal, with similar disturbances at all scales, like waves during a storm. (But with different shapes, of course, due to magnetism.)

    I’ve seen close-ups that show it is indeed turbulent everywhere. But at scales like the photo above the disturbances seem like separate objects rather than turbulence in a fluid. What causes this “scale separation” of behavior?

    (I know the cause is magnetism in plasma, but I don’t grok magnetohydrodynamics. I’m looking for something intuitive, perhaps an analogy with some human-scale phenomena.)

  25. J.A. Casadel

    Massive floating islands of trash hundreds of miles wide floating throughout the world’s oceans; 84,000 different chemicals polluting drinking water; toxic carcinogens and metals found in newborn baby’s blood; mercury-laden salmon, animal extinctions… Do we really need to debate the issue of global warming??? The earth is convulsing in agony while it’s greedy/corrupt caretakers debate whether the atmosphere is heating up? Clearly, madness takes it’s toll… on earth and in mankind…

  26. Chris

    Why does anyone questioning Global Warming get attacked? Here’s what many of you copied after the first person wrote it:
    “Did you all ever think that maybe it’s the sun?

    The denier’s imagination echoes with the sound of a thousand hands slapping a thousand foreheads and a thousand voices saying “Ah, damn! I knew I forgot something!“

    You wrote it mocking the person asking the question. Would you mock Sallie Baliunas (astrophysicist at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in the Solar, Stellar, and Planetary Sciences Division and formerly Deputy Director of the Mount Wilson Observatory)?

    She wrote “Most of the increase in the air’s concentration of greenhouse gases from human activities–over 80 percent–occurred after the 1940s. That means that the strong early 20th century warming must be largely, if not entirely, natural. The coincident changes in the sun’s changing energy output and temperature records on earth tend to argue that the sun has driven a major portion of the 20th century temperature change.”

    I’m here to learn. Science is about questioning everything. Russian physicists are well known for attacking even the best thought out theories – not because they disagree, but science DEMANDS it! But attacking a theory or hypothesis is not the same as mocking someone.


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