The sun sent out a flare powerful enough to disrupt radio communications over Europe today, along with an eruption of electrically charged particles that just might sweep past Earth's magnetic field in time to spark a Fourth of July show of auroral fireworks.
The M5.6-class solar flare, observed by NASA's Solar Dynamic Observatory at 6:52 a.m. ET (10:52 GMT), was almost powerful enough to cross over from the medium M-class category to an extreme X-class event, SpaceWeather.com's Tony Phillips noted.
"A pulse of X-rays and UV radiation from the flare illuminated Earth's upper atmosphere, producing waves of ionization over Europe," he wrote.
Such waves can spark bursts of radio static, as recorded by Rob Stammes in Norway and noted by the National Weather Service's Space Weather Prediction Center. "Radio blackout storms have been observed in the past 24 hours," the center reported on its Facebook page.
Phillips writes that the "south-traveling cloud could deliver a glancing blow to our planet's magnetosphere on July 4th or 5th." However, the Space Weather Prediction Center says the CME "is not expected to disturb the field during the forecast period."
The sun is in the midst of an upswing in its 11-year activity cycle, heading toward an expected maximum in 2013. Right now there are five sunspot regions on the sun's Earth-facing side, and two of them — 1513 and 1515 — are considered capable of sending out M-class flares.
Such flares are generally associated with moderate disruption of radio communication and navigation systems. As for today's CME, the most likely effect will be heightened displays of the northern and southern lights.
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