In the first days of 2014, an enormous sunspot appeared along the eastern edge of the Sun. Formally known as Active Region 1944 (or AR1944), this feature is actually composed over 60 individual sunspots. The largest of them is several times larger than planet Earth.
So large is AR 1944, that it can be seen with the naked eye provided you use a solar filter to attenuate the Sun’s intense light. I’ve spotted AR 1944 with nothing more that a pair of eclipse glasses left over from a past eclipse trip. Last night (Jan. 06), I photographed the Sun setting behind some of the rugged peaks of the Chiricahua Mountains near my home in Portal, AZ. I found it fascinating to watch the Sun and AR 1944 pass behind the distant spires before disappearing from view.
In spite of being an active region on the Sun, AR 1944 has been relatively quite since its appearance. But that could change quickly with a powerful solar flare. According to SpaceWeather.com: “The sunspot has an unstable ‘beta-gamma-delta’ magnetic field that could erupt at any time. NOAA forecasters estimate a 75% chance of M-class flares and a 30% chance of X-flares on Jan. 7th.”
Since AR 1944 is now appears near the center of the Sun’s disk, it is aimed directly at Earth. So any major eruptions will spew high energy particles and x-rays directly at us, possibly triggering a major geomagnetic storm. Such events can damage satellites in high geosynchronous orbits. This is where most communications satellites orbit, so a major flare can effect global telecommunications. For more on this topic, see What impact do solar flares have on human activities?.
Solar physicists and space weather experts will be watching AR 1944 closely in the coming days. And so will amateur astronomers and sky watchers around the globe.
Update: According to NASA: “The sun emitted a significant solar flare, an X1.2, peaking at 3:31 p.m. EST on Jan.7, 2014. This is the first significant flare of 2014, and it follows on the heels of mid-level flare earlier in the day.” The source of this flare is AR 1944.