Observing the Stars: A Colossal Entity Resides on the Sun

The colossal sunspot that recently triggered magnificent aurorae worldwide is now facing the earth again and appears to be growing in size. This particular sunspot group is so large that it could comfortably accommodate fifteen earths. In fact, June 2023 witnessed the highest monthly average for sunspot numbers in the past 21 years. Sunspots are known to be the birthplaces of solar flares. The larger the sunspot, the more powerful the ensuing solar flare.

Last week, a massive solar flare erupted from one such sunspot, ionising Earth’s atmosphere and causing a substantial shortwave radio blackout over the western U.S. and Pacific Ocean for approximately half an hour. During a geomagnetic storm, solar particles collide with atmospheric gases, resulting in the spectacular colours of the aurorae. Oxygen gives off green and red light, while nitrogen produces blue and purple light.

The recent solar flare was observed as a bright ultraviolet flash by NASA’s Solar satellites and was classified as an X-flare, the most potent category of solar flares. On the scale of solar flare intensity, X-class flares are equivalent to a Category 5 hurricane, and more are expected.

Solar flares pose potential risks due to our heavy reliance on electronic communication. A particularly large solar flare could severely damage or destroy communication satellites and cause widespread power outages by overloading power stations. The potential impact is especially significant in developed countries like Australia, where power infrastructure is highly interconnected, and failures could cascade like a domino effect. The estimated losses could range between $1 to $2 trillion, with effects lasting for years.

The most powerful solar flares are believed to possess the energy equivalent of a billion hydrogen bombs, enough to power the world for thousands of years. The Sun, our main energy provider for those with solar panels, is expected to continue providing energy for the next five billion years before it burns out.

In terms of size, the Sun can contain our Earth a million times over. However, compared to other stars, our Sun pales in comparison. For instance, UY Scuti, a recently discovered star, is 1,700 times larger than our Sun, with a circumference of nearly 5 billion kilometres and an energy output 380,000 times that of our Sun. This star is so vast that a journey around it at high speeds would take over 1,100 years, highlighting its immense size.

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