Scientists record very rare ‘x-class’ solar flare with Irish help

12 May 2014

An image of the x-class solar flare

An international team of researchers, including Trinity College Dublin (TCD) academics, have won the ‘solar lottery’ after recording a rare x-class solar flare in one of the most powerful eruptions on the sun.

The event was recorded through multiple telescopes and has been able to build the most detailed model yet of one of the most dramatic events that can happen a star in its lifetime.

Despite being 149,600,000 km away from Earth, the largest solar flares can have a direct impact on our planet, none more drastic than a previously seen x-class flare in 1989 which bombarded earth with energy that not only created visually stunning aurorae in the polar regions, but also wreaked havoc  on electronics in satellites and none more-so than in Quebec where a nine-hour blackout occurred as a result.

This particular solar flare was first seen on 29 March this year when Dr Paul Higgins of Trinity College Dublin’s Astrophysics Research Group in the School of Physics and an international group of scientists made their significant findings.

Dr Higgins is a flare prediction expert and assisted the New Mexico-based team by making an accurate forecast of the event. He also initiated a ‘major flare watch’ hours beforehand, which put observatories across the globe on high-alert.

What exactly causes these flares to occur and what goes on under the surface of the Sun still has many questions waiting to be answered, says Dr Higgins: “No one really knows what triggers these large flares to occur, partially because very few have been studied in detail. X-class flares occur less than once per month on average, and a year or more can pass without any occurring at all.

“Also, the core of the flare is limited to a ‘tiny’ area on the sun (a few times the size of the Earth) and the field-of-view of many telescopes is equally small, so it is incredibly difficult to catch one of these events in action.”

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic