The solar event was classified as an M1-class flare, which is considered moderate in intensity. Satellite images of the solar flare, which were taken by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), showed a brief, violent flash of energy exploding out of sunspot AR2816.
The flare might have also released a coronal mass ejection (CME), a powerful expulsion of charged particles from the sun's corona. If Earth happens to be on the path of a CME, charged particles from the explosion can mess up the planet's magnetic field. This, in turn, can knock down satellites and the power grid, blacking out entire regions that are reliant on electricity. (Related: Are you ready for a 10 years with no power grid? Massive solar flare could cause decade-long blackout.)
NASA won't know for sure whether a CME accompanied the solar flare until it collected enough data. The space agency is currently monitoring the sun through the Solar and Heliospheric Observatory, a spacecraft that it co-created with the European Space Agency.
In a joint report with the Air Force, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) forecast a slight chance of another M1-class flare on Friday, April 23. It also predicted that Earth's magnetic field would be at "quiet to unsettled levels" on the same day.
The solar cycle is the cycle that the sun's magnetic field goes through around every 11 years. During the solar cycle, the sun's magnetic poles gradually reverse position, increasing solar activity in the process. Solar activity then gradually settles back down to a minimum before another cycle begins.
The sun entered Solar Cycle 25 (SC25) in December 2019. It had been mostly quiet in the past few months but could become a little more violent in the next few years. But some experts have predicted that SC25 would be on the milder side of past solar cycles.
The Solar Cycle 25 Prediction Panel, an international group of experts co-sponsored by NOAA and NASA, forecast that the current cycle would peak in July 2025, give or take eight months. It said that the sun would form around 115 sunspots. Panel co-chair Lisa Upton noted that their predictions had mostly matched the sun's actual activity so far.
"The sun is performing as we expected, maybe even a little better," she remarked. "The current behavior of the sun is consistent with an early onset near the beginning of our predicted range."
If current trends persist SC25 could peak as early as 2024. Activity during this cycle would be similar in strength to the relatively weak cycle that preceded it. Solar Cycle 24 peaked with a maximum sunspot number of 116.
"I'm not surprised that people are grumbling about SC25 being a dud," Upton shared. "Weak cycles are typically preceded by long stretches of spotless days, and they are slow to ramp up. All of this is consistent with our prediction."
Conversely, a study led by the federally-funded National Center for Atmospheric Research predicted that SC25 would be among the strongest since record-keeping began. Researchers forecast that the sun would form a maximum of 210 to 260 sunspots. This would make SC25 one of the strongest ever observed.
Space.news has more space weather updates and the cosmic disasters that humanity has to watch out for.