Huge Sunspot Region Facing Earth Develops 'Beta-Gamma' Magnetic Field

A huge sunspot that's rotating over the sun's Earth-facing side has developed into a beta-gamma magnetic classification, which is associated with solar flares.

The sunspot, named AR3068, was first noticed rotating into view over the sun's eastern horizon a few days ago and has grown since then.

Sunspots are regions in the sun's atmosphere that aren't quite as hot as the surrounding areas because of intense magnetic fields that prevent heat from rising up below the surface. Since sunspots are relatively cool, they also appear dark.

Due to the intense magnetic fields associated with sunspots, they are known to be sources of solar flares and other eruptions of material known as coronal mass ejections (CMEs). These explosions happen when the magnetic field lines suddenly shift or realign.

The sun
A NASA Solar Dynamics Observatory (SDO) image of the sun taken on August 3, 2022. Solar flares can disrupt radio communications if they're strong enough. NASA/SDO/AIA

Solar flares are essentially flashes of electromagnetic radiation. When they reach Earth, they can disrupt a part of our planet's atmosphere known as the ionosphere. The ionosphere plays an important role in high frequency radio communications since radio waves travel around the world by bouncing off of it. When it's disrupted, high frequency radio communications can also be impaired.

Flares are classified into five different categories. These are A, B, C, M and X, with A being the weakest and X the strongest. Typically, it's only M-class to X-class flares that are of note.

There's no need to be concerned, though. Solar flares happen often and even strong ones rarely cause noticeable disruption to the vast majority of people.

What's more, while the sunspot AR3068 is still on the side of the sun that's facing Earth, it has already moved past the point where it was directly facing our planet and is now heading towards the sun's western side, where it will soon pass from view.

However, in recent days experts have noted that AR3068 has developed into a certain type of sunspot.

Sunspots receive what's known as a magnetic classification that is based on the polarity of their magnetic field(s). At its simplest, there is an alpha class, where the sunspot has the same polarity throughout. In beta sunspots, there are multiple polarities that are clearly defined. More than half of sunspots fit into these two classes, according to solar activity website Space Weather Live.

Other sunspots get more complex, so that no line can be drawn between spots of opposite polarity. This type is known as a beta-gamma sunspot, and it's what AR3068 has developed into.

According to a study in June 2021, beta-gamma sunspots are among the types that are "very closely related to the eruption of solar flares". Space Weather Live states there is a 10 percent chance of an M-class flare from AR3068 and a 30 percent chance of a C-class flare.

Space weather analysis website stated on Wednesday: "Any explosions today will be geoeffective because the sunspot is almost directly facing Earth."

In either case, neither of these will be likely to pose any kind of threat or disruption to Earth.