Solar flare

For the class of stars that undergo similar phenomena, see flare star.
"Sun flare" redirects here. For the rose variety, see Rosa 'Sun Flare'.
On August 31, 2012 a long prominence/filament of solar material that had been hovering in the Sun's atmosphere, the corona, erupted out into space at 4:36 p.m. EDT. Seen here from the Solar Dynamics Observatory, the flare caused an aurora on Earth on September 3.
Solar flare and its prominence eruption recorded on June 7, 2011 by SDO in extreme ultraviolet
Evolution of magnetism on the Sun.

A solar flare is a sudden flash of brightness observed near the Sun's surface. It involves a very broad spectrum of emissions, an energy release of typically 1 × 1020 joules of energy for a well-observed event. A major event can emit up to 1 × 1025 joules[1] (the latter is roughly the equivalent of 1 billion megatons of TNT, or over 400 times more energy than released from the impact of Comet Shoemaker–Levy 9 with Jupiter). Flares are often, but not always, accompanied by a coronal mass ejection.[2] The flare ejects clouds of electrons, ions, and atoms through the corona of the sun into space. These clouds typically reach Earth a day or two after the event.[3] The term is also used to refer to similar phenomena in other stars, where the term stellar flare applies.

Solar flares affect all layers of the solar atmosphere (photosphere, chromosphere, and corona), when the plasma medium is heated to tens of millions of Kelvin, while the cosmic-ray-like electrons, protons, and heavier ions are accelerated to near the speed of light. They produce radiation across the electromagnetic spectrum at all wavelengths, from radio waves to gamma rays, although most of the energy is spread over frequencies outside the visual range and for this reason the majority of the flares are not visible to the naked eye and must be observed with special instruments. Flares occur in active regions around sunspots, where intense magnetic fields penetrate the photosphere to link the corona to the solar interior. Flares are powered by the sudden (timescales of minutes to tens of minutes) release of magnetic energy stored in the corona. The same energy releases may produce coronal mass ejections (CME), although the relation between CMEs and flares is still not well established.

X-rays and UV radiation emitted by solar flares can affect Earth's ionosphere and disrupt long-range radio communications. Direct radio emission at decimetric wavelengths may disturb the operation of radars and other devices that use those frequencies.

Solar flares were first observed on the Sun by Richard Christopher Carrington and independently by Richard Hodgson in 1859[4] as localized visible brightenings of small areas within a sunspot group. Stellar flares can be inferred by looking at the lightcurves produced from the telescope or satellite data of variety of other stars.

The frequency of occurrence of solar flares varies, from several per day when the Sun is particularly "active" to less than one every week when the Sun is "quiet", following the 11-year cycle (the solar cycle). Large flares are less frequent than smaller ones.

On July 23, 2012, a massive, and potentially damaging, solar superstorm (solar flare, coronal mass ejection, solar EMP) barely missed Earth, according to NASA.[5][6] According to NASA, there may be as much as a 12% chance of a similar event occurring between 2012 and 2022,[5] although because this particular figure was based on an extreme extrapolation of the calculated frequency of future storms, the actual probability of this is quite uncertain.


Flares occur when sped up charged particles, mainly electrons, interact with the plasma medium. Scientific research suggests that the phenomenon of magnetic reconnection leads to this copious acceleration of charged particles.[7] On the Sun, magnetic reconnection may happen on solar arcades – a series of closely occurring loops of magnetic lines of force. These lines of force quickly reconnect into a low arcade of loops leaving a helix of magnetic field unconnected to the rest of the arcade. The sudden release of energy in this reconnection is the origin of the particle acceleration. The unconnected magnetic helical field and the material that it contains may violently expand outwards forming a coronal mass ejection.[8] This also explains why solar flares typically erupt from what are known as the active regions on the Sun where magnetic fields are much stronger on average.

Although there is a general agreement on the source of a flare's energy, the mechanisms involved are still not well known. It is not clear how the magnetic energy is transformed into the particle kinetic energy, nor is it known how some particles can accelerated to the GeV range (1012 electron volt) and beyond. There are also some inconsistencies regarding the total number of accelerated particles, which sometimes seems to be greater than the total number in the coronal loop. Scientists are unable to forecast flares, even to this day.


Powerful X-class flares create radiation storms that produce auroras and can give airline passengers flying over the poles small radiation doses.
On August 1, 2010, the Sun shows a C3-class solar flare (white area on upper left), a solar tsunami (wave-like structure, upper right) and multiple filaments of magnetism lifting off the stellar surface.[9]
Multi-spacecraft observations of the March 20, 2014 X-class flare.

Solar flares are classified as A, B, C, M or X according to the peak flux (in watts per square metre, W/m2) of 100 to 800 picometre X-rays near Earth, as measured on the GOES spacecraft.

Classification Peak Flux Range at 100-800 picometre
(watts/square metre)
A < 10−7
B 10−7 – 10−6
C 10−6 – 10−5
M 10−5 – 10−4
X > 10−4

Within a class there is a linear scale from 1 to 9.n (apart from X), so an X2 flare is twice as powerful as an X1 flare, and is four times more powerful than an M5 flare.

H-alpha classification

An earlier flare classification is based on spectral observations. The scheme uses both the intensity and emitting surface. The classification in intensity is qualitative, referring to the flares as: (f)aint, (n)ormal or (b)rilliant. The emitting surface is measured in terms of millionths of the hemisphere and is described below. (The total hemisphere area AH = 15.5 × 1012 km2.)

Classification Corrected Area
[millionths of hemisphere]
S < 100
1 100 – 250
2 250 – 600
3 600 – 1200
4 > 1200

A flare then is classified taking S or a number that represents its size and a letter that represents its peak intensity, v.g.: Sn is a normal sunflare.[10]


Massive X6.9 class solar flare, August 9, 2011.
While this flare produced a coronal mass ejection (CME), this CME is not traveling towards the Earth, and no local effects are expected.[11]

Solar flares strongly influence the local space weather in the vicinity of the Earth. They can produce streams of highly energetic particles in the solar wind, known as a solar proton event. These particles can impact the Earth's magnetosphere (see main article at geomagnetic storm), and present radiation hazards to spacecraft and astronauts. Additionally, massive solar flares are sometimes accompanied by coronal mass ejections (CMEs) which can trigger geomagnetic storms that have been known to disable satellites and knock out terrestrial electric power grids for extended periods of time.

The soft X-ray flux of X class flares increases the ionization of the upper atmosphere, which can interfere with short-wave radio communication and can heat the outer atmosphere and thus increase the drag on low orbiting satellites, leading to orbital decay. Energetic particles in the magnetosphere contribute to the aurora borealis and aurora australis. Energy in the form of hard x-rays can be damaging to spacecraft electronics and are generally the result of large plasma ejection in the upper chromosphere.

The radiation risks posed by solar flares are a major concern in discussions of a manned mission to Mars, the Moon, or other planets. Energetic protons can pass through the human body, causing biochemical damage,[12] presenting a hazard to astronauts during interplanetary travel. Some kind of physical or magnetic shielding would be required to protect the astronauts. Most proton storms take at least two hours from the time of visual detection to reach Earth's orbit. A solar flare on January 20, 2005 released the highest concentration of protons ever directly measured,[13] giving astronauts as little as 15 minutes to reach shelter.


Flares produce radiation across the electromagnetic spectrum, although with different intensity. They are not very intense at white light, but they can be very bright at particular atomic lines. They normally produce bremsstrahlung in X-rays and synchrotron radiation in radio.


Optical observations. Richard Carrington observed a flare for the first time on 1 September 1859 projecting the image produced by an optical telescope through a broad-band filter. It was an extraordinarily intense white light flare. Since flares produce copious amounts of radiation at , adding a narrow ( ≈1 Å) passband filter centered at this wavelength to the optical telescope, allows the observation of not very bright flares with small telescopes. For years Hα was the main, if not the only, source of information about solar flares. Other passband filters are also used.

Radio observations. During World War II, on 25 and 26 February 1942, British radar operators observed radiation that Stanley Hey interpreted as solar emission. Their discovery did not go public until the end of the conflict. The same year Southworth also observed the Sun in radio, but as with Hey, his observations were only known after 1945. In 1943 Grote Reber was the first to report radioastronomical observations of the Sun at 160 MHz. The fast development of radioastronomy revealed new peculiarities of the solar activity like storms and bursts related to the flares. Today ground-based radiotelescopes observe the Sun from ~15 MHz up to 400 GHz.

Space telescopes. Since the beginning of space exploration, telescopes have been sent to space, where they work at wavelengths shorter than UV, which are completely absorbed by the atmosphere, and where flares may be very bright. Since the 1970s, the GOES series of satellites observe the Sun in soft X-rays, and their observations became the standard measure of flares, diminishing the importance of the classification. Hard X-rays were observed by many different instruments, the most important today being the Reuven Ramaty High Energy Solar Spectroscopic Imager (RHESSI). Nonetheless, UV observations are today the stars of solar imaging with their incredible fine details that reveal the complexity of the solar corona. Spacecraft may also bring radio detectors at extremely long wavelengths (as long as a few kilometers) that cannot propagate through the ionosphere.

Optical telescopes

Two successive photos of a solar flare phenomenon. The solar disc was blocked in these photos for better visualization of the flare's accompanying protruding prominence.

Radio telescopes

Space telescopes

The following spacecraft missions have flares as their main observation target.

Examples of large solar flares

Short narrated video about Fermi's observations of the highest-energy light ever associated with an eruption on the sun as of June 2012
Active Region 1515 released an X1.1 class flare from the lower right of the sun on July 6, 2012, peaking at 7:08 PM EDT. This flare caused a radio blackout, labeled as an R3 on the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administrations scale that goes from R1 to R5.
Space weather—March 2012.[18]

The most powerful flare ever observed was the first one to be observed,[19] on September 1, 1859, and was reported by British astronomer Richard Carrington and independently by an observer named Richard Hodgson. The event is named the Solar storm of 1859, or the "Carrington event". The flare was visible to a naked eye (in white light), and produced stunning auroras down to tropical latitudes such as Cuba or Hawaii, and set telegraph systems on fire.[20] The flare left a trace in Greenland ice in the form of nitrates and beryllium-10, which allow its strength to be measured today.[21] Cliver and Svalgaard[22] reconstructed the effects of this flare and compared with other events of the last 150 years. In their words: While the 1859 event has close rivals or superiors in each of the above categories of space weather activity, it is the only documented event of the last ∼150 years that appears at or near the top of all of the lists.

In modern times, the largest solar flare measured with instruments occurred on November 4, 2003. This event saturated the GOES detectors, and because of this its classification is only approximate. Initially, extrapolating the GOES curve, it was estimated to be X28.[23] Later analysis of the ionospheric effects suggested increasing this estimate to X45.[24] This event produced the first clear evidence of a new spectral component above 100 GHz.[25]

Other large solar flares also occurred on April 2, 2001 (X20),[26] October 28, 2003 (X17.2 and 10),[27] September 7, 2005 (X17),[26] February 17, 2011 (X2),[28][29][30] August 9, 2011 (X6.9),[11][31] March 7, 2012 (X5.4),[32][33] July 6, 2012 (X1.1).[34] On July 6, 2012, a solar storm hit just after midnight UK time,[35] when an X1.1 solar flare fired out of the AR1515 sunspot. Another X1.4 solar flare from AR 1520 region of the Sun,[36] second in the week, reached the Earth on July 15, 2012[37] with a geomagnetic storm of G1–G2 level.[38][39] A X1.8-class flare was recorded on October 24, 2012.[40] There has been major solar flare activity in early 2013, notably within a 48-hour period starting on May 12, 2013, a total of four X-class solar flares were emitted ranging from an X1.2 and upwards of an X3.2,[41] the latter of which was one of the largest year 2013 flares.[42][43] Departing sunspot complex AR2035-AR2046 erupted on April 25, 2014 at 0032 UT, producing a strong X1.3-class solar flare and an HF communications blackout on the dayside of Earth. NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory recorded a flash of extreme ultraviolet radiation from the explosion.

Flare spray

Flare sprays are a type of eruption associated with solar flares.[44] They involve faster ejections of material than eruptive prominences,[45] and reach velocities of 20 to 2000 kilometers per second.[46]


Current methods of flare prediction are problematic, and there is no certain indication that an active region on the Sun will produce a flare. However, many properties of sunspots and active regions correlate with flaring. For example, magnetically complex regions (based on line-of-sight magnetic field) called delta spots produce the largest flares. A simple scheme of sunspot classification due to McIntosh, or related to fractal complexity.[47] is commonly used as a starting point for flare prediction.[48] Predictions are usually stated in terms of probabilities for occurrence of flares above M or X GOES class within 24 or 48 hours. The U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) issues forecasts of this kind.[49]

See also


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  2. Kopp, G.; Lawrence, G.; Rottman, G. (2005). "The Total Irradiance Monitor (TIM): Science Results". Solar Physics. 20 (1–2): 129–139. Bibcode:2005SoPh..230..129K. doi:10.1007/s11207-005-7433-9.
  3. Menzel, Whipple, and de Vaucouleurs, "Survey of the Universe", 1970
  4. "Description of a Singular Appearance seen in the Sun on September 1, 1859", Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society, v20, pp13+, 1859
  5. 1 2 Phillips, Dr. Tony (July 23, 2014). "Near Miss: The Solar Superstorm of July 2012". NASA. Retrieved July 26, 2014.
  6. Staff (April 28, 2014). "Video (04:03) – Carrington-class coronal mass ejection narrowly misses Earth". NASA. Retrieved July 26, 2014.
  7. Zhu et al, ApJ, 2016, 821, L29
  8. "The Mysterious Origins of Solar Flares", Scientific American, April 2006
  9. "Great Ball of Fire". NASA. Retrieved May 21, 2012.
  10. Tandberg-Hanssen, Einar; Emslie, A. Gordon (1988). Cambridge University Press, ed. "The physics of solar flares".
  11. 1 2 "Sun Unleashes X6.9 Class Flare". NASA. Retrieved March 7, 2012.
  12. "New Study Questions the Effects of Cosmic Proton Radiation on Human Cells". Retrieved 2008-10-11.
  13. "A New Kind of Solar Storm – NASA Science".
  14. Gimenez de Castro, C.G., Raulin, J.-P., Makhmutov, V., Kaufmann, P., Csota, J.E.R., Instantaneous positions of microwave solar bursts: Properties and validity of the multiple beam observations, Astron. Astrophys. Suppl. Ser., 140, 3, December II 1999, DOI:10.1051/aas:1999428
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  19. "A Super Solar Flare". NASA. 6 May 2008. Retrieved 22 December 2012.
  20. Bell, Trudy E.; Phillips, Tony (2008). "A Super Solar Flare". Science@NASA. Retrieved May 21, 2012.
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  32. Zalaznick, Matt. "Gimme Some Space: Solar Flare, Solar Storm Strike". The Norwalk Daily Voice. Retrieved July 19, 2012.
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  34. Fox, Karen (July 7, 2012). "Sunspot 1515 Release X1.1 Class Solar Flare". Nasa Goddard Space Flight Center. Retrieved July 14, 2012.
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