Thursday, September 29, 2011

Why flares are back in style

Fashion’s a funny business. Two years ago, if anyone had told you that in September 2011 it would be cool and trendy to walk around town wearing headphones the size of baked bean tins, you’d have treated them with the scorn you’d normally reserve for someone who claimed the world was flat, or that England would win the next World Cup.

But here we are in September 2011. Designer cans cost upwards of £120. They make the wearer look like Phones, the submarinating marionette from Stingray, and they annoy the hell out of anyone standing within 200 yards. They might look OK plugged into your hi-fi, but on the street they just make you look daft.

Flares are back in the news too. But not, as the headline might have mischievously suggested, flares of the long-leggedy hippyish trouser-type variety. If you thought you were getting the go-ahead to squeeze yourself into a pair of loon pants, then you’re out there with the flat-earthers and the England fans.

No, what we’re talking about here are solar flares. The kind that for the last few days have been shooting out of the Sun in the general direction of our innocent little planet, causing auroras both boreal and austral, knocking satellites out of whack and giving mobile phone companies a perfect excuse for those irritating drop-outs in G3 signal any time you venture more than half a mile from a built-up area.

Solar flares emanate from sunspots, in this case the 100,000km-long Active Region 1302, which has been described by normally sober sources such as NASA as a “behemoth”.

And that’s not a word you hear too often in the context of coronal mass ejections. It’s not a word you hear much in any context, come to that.

Solar flares, it says on the internet, are divided by intensity into five categories: A, B, C, M and X. There’s something rather disturbing about that apparent lack of a logical naming convention. A, B, and C are pretty ordinary. Then things get so bad, so fast, that the space boffins don’t even bother with D to L.

And as for N to W, well don't stop to think about them. Just head for the shelters, 'cos here comes a category X1.9 and it’s got our name on it.

It would be tempting to suggest that all this cosmic assault and battery is the Sun’s warning to scientists at CERN who recently reported that they might, just might, have detected a particle in the course of breaking the ultimate speed limit: the speed of light.

 “Ho,” says the Sun. “I’m the top light source around here. Taste my flares.”

Tempting, but preposterous.

In the short term, the mighty AR1302 isn’t even pointing straight at the Earth yet, so we may not yet have felt the full effect of its toasty plasma eruptions.

And over the next couple of years solar activity is predicted to increase, which means there could be more sunspots, more geomagnetic storms, and more people going around wearing tin-foil hats to ward off the ill effects.

Which might look a bit silly. But not half as silly as the twits in the big headphones.

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