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Solar Flare Possibly Biggest Ever Recorded, Experts Say

March 11, 1989

HOLLOMAN AIR FORCE BASE, N.M. (AP) _ The latest in a series of solar flares was 36 times the size of Earth - possibly the largest ever recorded - with the potential to disrupt radio and telephone transmissions, astronomers said.

The solar flare extended some 70,000 miles into space Thursday, said researchers at Sacramento Peak, just east of Holloman and Alamogordo.

″The report I got from Sacramento Peak ... is it’s the largest one they’ve seen - ever,″ said astronomer Tom Duvall at Kitt Peak National Observatory near Tucson, Ariz. ″This is pretty exciting for us up here.″

It was the fourth solar flare since Monday.

Air Force Maj. James B. Near Jr., commander of Holloman’s solar observatory in the Sacramento Mountains, said Friday the flare was the size of 36 Earths. He said the Air Force captured it on videotape.

Astronomers at Kitt Peak said its size was difficult to measure since the blast emanated from a volatile area on the sun’s surface that is now facing the Earth.

″It’s a very disturbed area - probably two to three Earths in diameter,″ said Tom Folkers, a technical specialist and telescope operator at Kitt Peak.

The violent eruptions created the potential to disrupt long-range communications on Earth - such as short-wave transmissions and satellite links, researchers said.

Folkers said ultraviolet radiation and X-rays hit the Earth’s upper atmosphere at noon Thursday, just eight minutes after the solar blast. Such radiation travels at the speed of light, he said.

Slower-moving particles, such as hydrogen molecules, are expected to pelt the outer atmosphere for days as a result of the phenomenon, he said.

″What happens when you have a solar flare is that the cosmic particles hit the ionosphere and shatter it,″ Folkers said.

The ionosphere, about 120 miles above the Earth’s surface, normally reflects radio transmissions back to the surface, said Folkers, who said he studies solar flares as a hobby.

After it is broken, the ionosphere gradually reassembles and regains its reflective ability, he said. Meanwhile, people listening to short-wave broadcasts might notice that stations tend to fade out, Folkers said.

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