Listen to today's episode of StarDate on the web the same day it airs in high-quality streaming audio without any extra ads or announcements. Choose a $8 one-month pass, or listen every day for a year for just $30.
You are here
The Sun’s magnetic field sometimes “snaps” like a breaking rubber band. That produces a huge explosion, known as a solar flare. And it’s sometimes accompanied by an outburst of charged particles, which are potential trouble for Earth.
Different layers of gas within the Sun rotate at different speeds. That causes the lines of the Sun’s magnetic field to get all tangled up. That produces the dark magnetic storms known as sunspots.
The lines don’t stay tangled, though. They snap, releasing tremendous amounts of energy — in some cases, the equivalent of millions of H-bombs. Such a flare can zap Earth with X-rays and other radiation. That heats the outer atmosphere, causing it to expand. It can also disrupt some types of radio transmissions, and force airlines to reroute flights that receive little protection from Earth’s magnetic field.
Many flares are accompanied by big clouds of charged particles. They can damage orbiting satellites and knock out power grids on Earth. In fact, there’s concern that an especially big flare could cause blackouts that would last for months.
The most powerful flare ever seen was also the first one ever seen, in 1859. It caused telegraph operators to get electric shocks, and even started fires. A flare in 1972 might have set off some magnetic mines. And in 2017, a flare knocked out some communications during hurricanes in the Caribbean. So “snaps” on the Sun could snap off technology here on Earth.
Script by Damond Benningfield