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Lucky escape for Earth after solar flare

24 January 2012, 15:47 Duncan Alfreds

Cape Town - The Earth will not bear the brunt of the coronal mass ejection that will hit the planet on Tuesday.

"Its source was an active area about 45° to 50° off the equator of the sun," Kobus Olckers, space weather officer at the Ises Regional Space Weather Warning Centre in Hermanus told News24.

He said that most of the CME would miss the planet, but that minor disruptions were still possible because of the scale of the event.

"Most of the mass - I would say 95% of the mass - is going away from the ecliptic plane, so that thing is going away from all the planets," Olckers said.

The plane of the ecliptic is the plane of the planets around the sun and the Earth would be more vulnerable if a CME were to erupt from the sun's equator.


Earth is fortunate that the CME occurred at a higher solar latitude because it will result in a minimal effect.

"I saw it yesterday [on Monday], we're going to catch the very edge of it. It's coming our way but if we had been 80 million kilometres further up, it would have been bad," Olckers said.

The distance from the Earth to the sun is about 150 million kilometres.

The sun goes through a solar cycle about every 11 years where an increased activity on the surface is observed.

Olckers said that if a CME had to hit the Earth squarely, it would result in devastating consequences.

"Full frontal [hit] that's bad news because it was really energetic."

Internet, satellite and telephone communications could have been disrupted, he added.

Scientists recognise three major categories of solar flares. X-class flares are big and are major events that can trigger planet-wide radio blackouts. M-class flares are medium-sized; they can cause brief radio blackouts that affect Earth's polar regions. C-class flares are small with few noticeable consequences here on Earth.

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