STORMY SPACE WEATHER: Giant sunspot AR1944 is directly facing Earth and crackling with solar flares. Yesterday, Jan. 7th, an X1-class explosion in the sunspot’s magnetic canopy hurled a CME in our direction. Sky watchers shoud be alert for auroras on Jan. 9th when the cloud arrives. NOAA forecasters estimate a 60% chance of strong geomagnetic storms.

The X1-flare that hurled the CME toward Earth also accelerated a swarm of high-energy protons in our direction. Effects of the proton fusillade are visible in this Jan. 7th coronagraph movie from the Solar and Heliospheric Observatory (SOHO):

The “snow” in this movie is caused by solar protons striking the spacecraft’s CCD camera. A veritable blizzard of speckles develops as the CME emerges into full view. Indeed, many of the protons are accelerated by shock waves at the forefront of the expanding cloud.

This ongoing radiation storm ranks S2 on NOAA storm scales. It is rich in “hard” protons with more than 100 MeV of energy, which accounts for the snowiness of the SOHO coronagraph images. According to NOAA, “passengers and crew in high-flying aircraft at high latitudes may be exposed to elevated radiation risk” during such a storm.

The source of all this activity is AR1944, one of the biggest sunspots of the past decade. The sprawling active region is more than 200,000 km wide and contains dozens of dark cores. Its primary core, all by itself, is large enough to swallow Earth three times over. To set the scale of the behemoth, Karzaman Ahmad inserted a picture of Earth in the corner of this picture he took on Jan. 7th from the Langkawi National Observatory in Malaysia:

More flares are in the offing. The sunspot has an unstable ‘beta-gamma-delta’ magnetic field that is likely to erupt again today. NOAA forecasters estimate an 80% chance of M-class flares and a 50% chance of X-flares on Jan. 8th.