The largest solar flare to erupt on the sun since December 2006 has sent plasma streaming toward Earth, a usually benign but sometimes troublesome phenomenon that's being monitored by a sophisticated satellite instrument developed by UC San Diego.
Such flares can disrupt telecommunications on Earth, in addition to setting off the wondrous aurora borealis.
"The plasma from the flare contains ionized particles that could cause an aurora borealis in the northern latitudes," said Bernard Jackson, a research scientist at UCSD's Center for Astrophysics and Space Science. "The plasma should hit Earth's magnetosphere on Thursday."
The flare erupted on Feb. 15th, producing plasma that was imaged today (Wednesday) by the Solar Mass Ejection Imager (SMEI), an instrument that Jackson designed at UCSD. SMEI is traveling aboard Coriolis, a satellite that's in polar orbit around Earth.
"This is one of the largest flares of the current solar cycle," Jackson said on Wednesday night. "It is exciting because the sun is really waking up and coming to life. We're now able to forecast the arrival of the ejecta in a pretty robust way."