1429 might sound like a pretty dull name for a sunspot. But since it rotated into view of Earth on March 2, it's been creating some spectacular pyrotechnics, including one on Tuesday that was the second biggest solar flare in the current solar cycle -- and now it's headed for the home planet.
The flare, which erupted from the sun on Tuesday, was classified as an "X5" event by spaceweather.com. NASA's Goddard Space Center later confirmed that the flare reached a magnitude of X5.4. X-class flares are the strongest and most active solar flares, with the potential to interrupt satellite operations and even ground-based communication and electrical grids.
Just an hour later, another flare, this time classified X1, erupted from the same sunspot.
On the upside, a flare of such size and magnitude, pointed in Earth's direction, could bring truly spectacular displays of northern lights, though the term "northern" here might be a bit of a misnomer. One Atlanta television station is optimistically predicting aurora in the skies above Georgia. Northern lights are expected above the more northern states in the Lower 48, including Michigan, Maine, and Washington.
The University of Alaska Fairbanks' Geophysical Institute's aurora forecast page hadn't changed for Wednesday night, sitting at a still-respectable level of "active" and visible overhead from Barrow to Juneau. But that's just the tip of the iceberg: Thursday's forecast calls for "extreme" aurora stretching as far south as Kodiak, while Friday just intensifies. Late Thursday night and into Friday morning, the aurora could be directly overhead for almost the entire state of Alaska with potential to be visible low on the horizon all the way into the middle of the Lower 48.
Sunspot 1429 emitted an X1-class flare on Sunday, leading to heightened aurora alerts for far northern latitudes, which were expected to begin appearing Tuesday and possibly continue through Thursday. But Sunday's flare came as the sunspot was largely pointed away from Earth, while Tuesday's eruption occurred with 1429 closer to the center of the star when viewed from terra firma.
Experts confirmed that the byproduct of the flare was likely headed for earth, though it still wasn't clear just how much impact the wave of charged particles would have.
With such a strong eruption, even a glancing blow has potential for atmospheric fireworks.