Picture of the Day: The Largest Solar Flare Since 2006

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A couple years ago, the sun went mysteriously quiet. Our star's regular activity cycle appeared to have changed, and we had a long period in which sunspots, solar flares and coronal mass ejections were few and far between.

But last year, things finally got back to normal and we started to see the uptick in solar activity that astronomers predict comes with this particular time in the sun's 11-year activity cycle.

This week, the sun unleashed its most powerful solar flare since 2006. The flares occur when the sun's magnetic field gets stretched to a breaking point by internal forces. As the magnetic force lines reconnect, snap and then reconnect, they unleash massive amounts of energy. The image of the massive flare above was captured by NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory.

Sometimes, the flares are accompanied by coronal mass ejections, which are hot balls of gas that the sun sends blasting into the solar system. When one hits Earth, it can disrupt communications and do less serious things like cause beautiful auroras.

View more Pictures of the Day.

Image: NASA.

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Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is the deputy editor of TheAtlantic.com. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer has called Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at Wired.com, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science Web site in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.

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