Saturday, December 31, 2011

2011 Was the Year of the Restless Sun

After five years of surprising quiet, the sun roared to life in 2011.

Our star erupted with numerous strong flares and waves of charged particles. Many researchers predict the surge will culminate in a peak in the sun's 11-year activity cycle in 2013.

This year also marked several key advances in scientists' understanding of the dynamics driving our favorite star. Here are some of the solar highlights of 2011:

Solar flares and CMEs

Having been relatively quiet since 2005, the sun spouted off a number of powerful flares and coronal mass ejections (CMEs) this year.

CMEs are made up of massive clouds of plasma that are sent streaking through space in any direction at several million mph. When these clouds are aimed at Earth, they can spawn geomagnetic storms that wreak havoc with GPS signals, radio communications and power grids. [Photos of Solar Flares & Storms]

"We are getting more CMEs and starting to get some more-energetic CME/flare combinations," Terry Kucera, deputy project scientist with NASA's Solar and Heliospheric Observatory spacecraft, told via email.

Scientists classify strong solar flares in three categories: C, M and X, with the X-class being the most powerful. So far in 2011, eight X-class flares have been observed. Learn More...

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