Unusually Big Sunspot Cluster Now Visible, Posing Risk of Powerful Solar Flares

A striking set of gigantic sunspots, first spotted from Mars and now designated AR3576, is currently facing Earth, capturing the attention of astronomers, space enthusiasts, and concerned space weather forecasters.

The cluster, nicknamed the “Martian sunspots,” was first discovered by NASA’s Perseverance rover using its MastCam in the final week of January. Since this initial observation, these sunspots have significantly increased in size and are now facing our planet.

The entire group of sunspots stretches an impressive distance of over 93,200 miles (150,000 kilometers), with at least four of the dark cores being larger than the Earth itself, according to SpaceWeather. This immense size, equivalent to about 12 Earth widths, makes these sunspots visible from Earth with the aid of ISO-approved eclipse glasses.

The AR357 sunspot group, as seen through a Dwarf II telescope on February 9, 2024.
Image: George Dvorsky

I used two telescopes, the Dwarf II and the Unistellar eQuinox 2, both equipped with special solar filters, to capture clear, detailed images of these impressive sunspots.

The AR357 sunspot group, as seen through a Unistellar Equinox telescope on February 9, 2024.
Image: George Dvorsky

Sunspots are cooler, darker areas on the Sun’s surface, looking like big spots, which occur due to the Sun’s complex magnetic field. They form when strong magnetic activity slows down the normal movement of hot gases on the Sun. Sunspots are more frequent and numerous during the solar maximum, a period in the Sun’s cycle when solar activity, including magnetic storms and solar flares, reaches its peak. For us on Earth, sunspots can affect space weather, sometimes leading to disruptions in satellite signals, power systems, and even affecting airline communications.

My images of AR3576 are pretty good, but they certainly don’t compare to the one taken by Eduardo Schaberger, a stellar photographer based in Rafaela, Argentina.

Image: Eduardo Schaberger

On January 29th, Schaberger received news about the sunspots. Now facing Earth, and with the weather finally cooperating, Schaberger finally managed to capture AR3576. Additionally, this was an opportune moment for him to conduct a second test of a new telescope, uniquely designed and built in his city for solar sunspot photography. This specialized Newtonian telescope features a primary mirror that’s been dealuminized specifically for capturing detailed images of sunspots.

“As I aimed at the sunspot, I was breathless,” Schaberger told Gizmodo. “The image I saw on my laptop screen was fantastic: a large archipelago of dark cores extended over about 150,000 km across the solar surface. Additionally, I could clearly see solar granulation, and I was struck by the light bridge crossing one of the largest cores of this spot. Truly, the Sun never ceases to amaze.”

Graphic: NOAA

This particular sunspot group, characterized by a complex magnetic structure, along with another region, AR3575, has been producing M-class flares, which are moderate solar eruptions with the potential to cause brief radio disruptions. Current observations by NOAA’s Space Weather Prediction Center suggest that both these regions are likely to continue generating M-class flares, and there’s also a possibility of X-class flares, the most intense category, which can lead to more significant and longer-lasting communication disruptions, in the coming days.

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