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NASA Spots Solar Flare Dancing on Sun's Surface (VIDEO)

May 08, 2014 11:36 AM EDT

NASA has unveiled a video of a solar flare erupting from the Sun's surface, calling the unprecedented images the best-observed ever. Four different NASA spacecraft and one ground-based observatory worked in unison to capture the flare. 

The X1-class flare on March 29 was witnessed - by chance - via NASA's Interface Region Imaging Spectrograph (IRIS) spacecraft, as well as by other spacecraft including the Hinode instrument operated jointly by NASA and Japan's space agency JAXA, and from a National Solar Observatory telescope located in New Mexico.

"Some of the spacecraft observe the whole sun all the time, but three of the observatories had coordinated in advance to focus on a specific active region of the Sun," Jonathan Cirtain, project scientist for Hinode at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala., said in a statement. "We need at least a day to program in observation time and the target - so it was extremely fortunate that we caught this X-class flare."

This event was particularly exciting for the IRIS team, as this was the first X-class flare ever observed by them.

Solar flares are categorized based on the strength of their release of energy, with X-class flares ranking as the strongest. The number associted with the class denotes the flare's relative strength, and X2 is twice as intense as an X1, and X3 three times as intense.

According to USA Today, the material is a small, hovering mass of twisted plasma that shifts back and forth before erupting into space - activity that is fairly common on the Sun. This flare reached heights of 3,000 miles above the Sun's surface, NASA reported.

Tracking solar flares such as this X-class one are important in understanding what causes these massive eruptions. If they impact Earth's upper atmosphere, they can cause radiation that's damaging to satellites, power grids and communications systems, and also present a risk to astronauts on the International Space Station.

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