The giant sunspot has doubled in size in 24 hours and is pointing towards Earth

A huge sunspot that doubled in size in just 24 hours is now facing Earth, meaning it could send us a solar flare.

Sunspots are dark areas on the surface of the sun that are associated with intense bursts of radiation. They appear dark because they are cooler than other parts of the Sun’s surface.

Sunspots are relatively cool because they form over areas where the sun’s magnetic fields are particularly strong, so strong that they block some of the sun’s heat from reaching its surface.

Sunspot AR3038 seen in the center of this screenshot of the sun via images from NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory. Sunspots can be a source of solar flares.

These tangled magnetic fields can sometimes suddenly reorganize. When this happens, a sudden burst of light and radiation is propelled away from the sun in the form of a solar flare.

The recently enlarged sunspot is known as AR3038. Images from NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory on Sunday show how the sunspot has evolved over the past day, twisting and contorting.

“Yesterday, sunspot AR3038 was big. Today, it’s huge,” reads “Fast-growing sunspot doubled in size in just 24 hours.”

The magnetic field associated with the sunspot means it could potentially send an M-class solar flare to Earth, the second strongest type. However, it is not known if this will be the case.

As of Monday morning, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Space Weather Prediction Center (SWPC) had issued no solar flare warnings.

If strong enough, solar flares can cause disruptions on Earth, interfering with radio communication networks and navigation systems. This can cause problems for people who work in the maritime or aviation industries, among others.

That said, it’s worth noting that an M-class flare probably wouldn’t be particularly disruptive in any case. Although M-class flares are the second strongest type of solar flare, they tend to cause only moderate radio blackouts. An M9 flare, the strongest of the M-class, could lead to loss of radio contact for tens of minutes in affected areas of Earth and degradation of low-frequency navigation signals. Class M flares are also common.

These are the less common Class X flares that can cause more serious problems. Class X flares are the most powerful type of flare. An X20 flare, for example, would cause a complete blackout of high-frequency radio on the daylight side of Earth for several hours, and boats and planes would be unable to use navigational signals during that time.

Fortunately, such flares are very rare, estimated to occur less than once every 11 years, the length of an average solar cycle.

solar flares
A file image depicts solar flares from the sun. Sunspots are associated with solar flares.
Claudio Ventrella/Getty

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