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First X-class solar flare of 2014 to deliver intense Northern Lights display

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NASA's SDO shows the immense sunspots pointed directly at Earth on Tuesday afternoon.

The surface of the sun exploded on Tuesday, as an immense, Earth-dwarfing complex of sunspots unleashed the first X-class solar flare of the year, sending out a blast of solar protons and launching a massive eruption of solar matter towards Earth.

The immense coronal mass ejection (CME) that accompanied Tuesday afternoon's X-1.2 solar flare is only expected to deliver a partial impact to Earth's magnetic field. However, the impact is expected to energize the auroras into putting on a spectacular display.

According to the US National Weather Service's Space Weather Prediction Center analysis of the event, posted on their Facebook page, the best time to see the Northern Lights will be between midnight and dawn Thursday morning (Eastern Time).

"If you don't mind getting up early and have few to no clouds in your area overnight, you may get a chance to see the aurora if you live in the northern lower 48," they wrote.

[ Related: Solar flare delays space station supply flight; US launch company fears rocket failure ]

The flare and coronal mass ejection were captured at 1:32 p.m. ET on Tuesday, by the various sun-observing satellites that are currently in space. This video, using images from NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory, goes through several loops of the explosion, showing it off at different wavelengths of light, and thus different temperatures:

Meanwhile, the Solar and Heliospheric Observatory (SOHO), took this image shortly after the solar flare, showing the coronal mass ejection spreading out into space.

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The CME is visible spreading out to the right (and you can check out an animated loop of it by clicking here). The chaotic white 'snow' speckling the field of view (and it gets worse towards the end of the animation) is due to the solar protons striking SOHO's CCD camera.

Although Earth's magnetic field is more than enough to protect us against the direct effects of these coronal mass ejections, they are known to set off geomagnetic storms. These storms are what cause strong auroral displays of the Northern Lights, and according to NOAA, they can pose a radiation risk to anyone flying in aircraft at high altitude, close to the poles. As for the crew of the International Space Station, the station is specifically designed to protect them against the radiation from these flares and eruptions.

Although it's extremely rare for there to be any stronger effects, it's worth mentioning that particularly powerful CMEs can cause problems with satellites, communications, and even our power grids here on the ground. One of the strongest ones ever witnessed took place in September of 1859, and caused what's now known as the Carrington Event. The Northern Lights were reportedly visible as far south as the Caribbean and were incredibly bright, while the geomagnetic storms caused telegraph networks to go haywire, shocking operators and causing towers to throw off sparks. If such an event were to happen these days, it could potentially overload our power grids, plunging much of the world into darkness for months or longer.

[ More Geekquinox: Polar vortex moving on, but deep freeze persists across much of Canada ]

One other impact of this particular solar eruption is that it caused Orbital Sciences Corporation to scrub the launch they had scheduled for today. They had plans to send their Cygnus spacecraft on a cargo delivery up to the International Space Station at 1:32 p.m. today — coincidentally, exactly one day after the solar flare exploded. Apparently, the spacecraft itself is protected against this kind of space weather (otherwise it wouldn't be much use for making deliveries to low-Earth orbit). However, the concern was about any possible failure of the Antares rocket that was launching it into space. According to the Canadian Press, Orbital will decide later today whether they'll try the launch again tomorrow, or wait longer for the sun to calm down.

If you want to go outside to possibly see the Northern Lights tonight, you can check the status of the auroras on www.spaceweather.com (down the left-hand side of the page). Also, if you find your community on the Clear Sky Chart website, you can see what kind of cloud conditions you can expect.

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