PHOTO: A solar flare occurred Thursday morning. Early evidence shows a solar storm is heading toward Earth. (NASA/SDO/AIA / July 12, 2012)
A heavy-duty solar flare erupted on the surface of the sun midmorning Thursday, and it appeared from early data that a solar storm from the X-class eruption was headed toward Earth.
"It looks to be headed in the Earth's direction," Alex Young of Maryland's Goddard Space Flight Center told the Los Angeles Times in an interview Thursday. But, he noted, that's based on a view from just one of two spacecraft monitoring the sun.
The so-called coronal mass ejection -- a violently released bubble of gas and magnetic fields -- could veer off. Scientists are waiting on more data from spacecraft within the next few hours to pinpoint the speed and severity of the storm.
PHOTOS: Solar flare close-ups
Mike Hapgood, a space weather scientist at the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory near Oxford, England, explained coronal mass ejections in a recent interview with The Times:
"Coronal mass ejections are caused when the magnetic field in the sun's atmosphere gets disrupted and then the plasma, the sun's hot ionized gas, erupts and send charged particles into space. Think of it like a hurricane — is it headed toward us or not headed toward us? If we're lucky, it misses us."
The size of the flare is a "reasonable" indicator of the strength and speed of a coronal mass ejection, Young said. Thursday's flare was categorized at X1.4. Among the categories of flares, according to Young, are C, M and X -- which, in general, translate to common, moderate and extreme.
The ejection, traveling at speeds of 1 million to 5 million miles per hour, takes about one to three days to reach Earth, said Young, associate director for science for the heliophysics division at Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md.
Solar eruptions like these pose a danger to Earth's technology, as well as any spacecraft and astronauts that lie in their way.
The blast of electromagnetic radiation can cause radio blackouts, Young said, and, in more extreme cases disrupt power.
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