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[February 22, 2013]
Scientists spot major activity on the sun
THE SUN, Feb 22, 2013 (Beaver County Times - McClatchy-Tribune Information Services via COMTEX) -- The black hole that appeared on the sun this week isn't the kind that devours planets and stars, but its mouth is the diameter of about six Earths.
Scientists watched Tuesday and Wednesday as the sunspot, known as AR 1678, formed on the sun's surface and grew to massive proportions.
The National Aeronautics and Space Administration's Solar Dynamics Observatory said the giant dark spot was created by the rearranging of the magnetic fields on the sun's surface.
John Stein, professor of mathematics and astronomy at Geneva College, said sunspots appear as dark splotches because they are cooler than the surrounding parts of the sun.
Over the past few days, the spot has quickly developed into a delta region -- a highly unstable area in which solar flares can develop, NASA said.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which monitors space conditions and solar flares, reported a 45 percent chance of an M-class, or medium flare, and a 15 percent chance of an X-class, or large flare, throughout today and Saturday.
Think of a solar flare as a rubber band, Stein explained. The flare stretches out from the surface of the sun and when it breaks, it releases a tremendous amount of energy, known as a coronal mass ejection, he said.
If the burst of charged particles is released in the direction of Earth, Stein added, we may notice some effects such as the Aurora Borealis.
"When it hits the upper atmosphere it'll light up like a florescent light bulb and you'll get a display of the Northern Lights," Stein said. "It can be pretty spectacular, but it takes a really strong coronal mass ejection to really get the aurora to come all the way down to our area." Larger flares can also alter the Earth's magnetic field, triggering outages in electrical and communications grids.
Scientists are keeping their eyes on this sunspot, but more large spots are definitely on the horizon.
Stein said sunspots operate on an 11-year cycle, and 2013 is the solar maximum -- the period when the sun is the most active.
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