NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory has captured what appears to be a disturbance in the force - on the sun. Astronomers say Sunday morning's eruption sent out a blast of electrically charged particles that should create brilliant auroral displays on Tuesday night.
"This eruption is directed right at us, and is expected to get here early in the day on August 4th," astronomer Leon Golub said in a statement from the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. "It's the first major Earth-directed eruption in quite some time."
Fortunately, it's not all that big of an eruption: The X-ray blast rated a C3 on the Space Weather Prediction Center's scale, which suggests there'll be no disruption for power grids, satellites, astronauts on the International Space Station or navigation services on airplanes. Stronger space storms can have more serious impacts. In 1989, for example, a huge solar outburst sparked a nine-hour electrical blackout in Quebec - and a more moderate blast that occurred in April apparently turned a telecom satellite into a zombie.
The biggest impact from Sunday's solar storm is expected to be that killer light show: Observers in the northern tier of the United States and similar latitudes should be on the watch for rippling waves of reddish or greenish light in the night sky. And who knows? The northern lights have been known to dip down to Colorado or even farther south on occasion.
Such displays are caused by the interaction between solar particles and Earth's own magnetic field. It's hard to predict exactly when the wave will hit - but you'll maximize your chances of seeing something by getting far away from city lights and having a clear view to the north.
The sun is coming off a low in its 11-year activity cycle, and Sunday's eruption serves as another sign that things are finally picking up. SpaceWeather.com says the event apparently started with a flare from a site known as sunspot 1092, the only significant sunspot group currently facing Earth. At about the same time, the observatory detected a huge magnetic filament of material rising up from the sun's northern hemisphere.
It's not rock-solid certain that there's a connection between the flare and the filament, which were separated by 400,000 miles. But It looks as if a "solar tsunami" swept across the sun's surface from the flare site toward the filament zone, propelling the hot stuff into space.
"In short, we have just witnessed a complex global eruption involving almost the entire Earth-facing side of the sun," SpaceWeather.com's Tony Phillips said.
Is this the start of something big? Some doomsayers are worried that the sun is on schedule for a 2012 (or 2013) apocalypse - but all the signs so far is that our nearest star is in the midst of a thoroughly normal cycle. As the sun heads toward Solar Max, you can expect the potential for disruption, as well as the potential for harmless light shows like the one some folks will see Tuesday night. Keep watch on these sites for all the sights:
- NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory website
- Video of the Aug. 1 eruption from SpaceWeather.com
- Video and stills of the flare-up from the Center for Astrophysics
- More pictures of the sun from SpaceWeather Flash
- Views from space on Twitpic, courtesy of Astro_Wheels
I provide a short snippet of commentary on the eruption in this msnbc.com video. Join the Cosmic Log corps by signing up as my Facebook friend or hooking up on Twitter. And if you really want to be friendly, ask me about "The Case for Pluto."