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Unexpected sunspot group produces big auroras, affects radios

(AP Photo)

Solar Cycle 24 is headed to a minimum in late 2018, but from the looks of things this past week, it appears solar forecasters may have to rethink what we know about the sun.

Early last week, a small sunspot group known as AR 2673 grew so large in two days that observers with solar glasses could spot it with the naked eye!

Not only was the sunspot group one of the largest of the year, it produced some of the most powerful X-class flares in the last decade.

Flares are concentrated energy blasted away from the sun by twisting and snapping magnetic fields.

During the past week, the group produced a 9.3 X flare and a recent 8.0 X flare.

Earth was in the crosshairs of the first blast, which gave us amazing views of the Northern Lights and some disrupted radio communications. The second major flare was seen as the sunspot group rounded the edge of the sun and will not affect Earth.

The X 9.33 flare was the 14th-most powerful X flare since 1976, but it paled in comparison to the great solar flare of April 11, 2003. That was measured as a 28 X, which is way, way off the charts.

The most powerful solar storm that scientists know of to date was the great Carrington solar storm which occurred back on Sept. 1, 1859.

The Carrington Event, as it is known, forced a massive solar flare and related coronal mass ejection toward the Earth with great speed. The super powerfully charged particles hit the magnetosphere of the Earth and lit up the skies of both the Northern and Southern hemispheres.

Auroras were seen almost as far as the equator and telegraph lines sparked with fires.

Solar Cycle 24 reached its peak in April 2014 and will wane by next year. Solar Cycle 25 was expected to begin in 2019 and continue through 2030.

Solar forecasts predict that the next solar cycle may be one of the mildest in recent memory and that conditions may be ripe for a possible return to a time when the sun was very quiet, similar to conditions during 1645-1715.

This was the great Maunder Minimum, when the Earth experienced cooler temperatures during the summer months and very strange cooling on the Earth. Very few sunspots were seen on the sun during this period in time.

No matter what your take is on climate change, the sun drives all weather!

Here is the September star chart, so you can follow along with others on the wonders of the night sky.

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