Historic space photo: A monstrous 'Halloween storm' explodes from the sun

The sun viewed through a green filter with a massive flash of light erupting from its surface
NASA's Solar and Heliospheric Observatory (SOHO) spacecraft captured this image of an enormous X-class solar flare as it erupted from the sun on October 28, 2003. The monstrous solar storm is one of the largest in recorded history. (Image credit: NASA/SOHO)

What it is: A solar flare exploding on the sun's surface

When it was taken: Oct. 28, 2003

Where it is: The sun, around 93 million miles (150 million kilometers) from Earth

Why it's so special: During the spooky season of 2003, the sun spit out an unusually powerful series of solar flares, known as the "Halloween solar storms." The most powerful of these flares (pictured above) exploded from the sun's surface on Oct. 28 and launched a high-speed burst of electrically charged particles, called a coronal mass ejection (CME), that smashed into Earth the next day.

The monstrous eruption was an X-class flare — the most powerful class the sun is capable of producing — with an estimated magnitude of 45, which remains the most powerful in modern databases, according to NASA. (The flare was too powerful to be accurately detected by scientific equipment at the time, so its magnitude was calculated afterward.)

The plume of plasma erupted from a sunspot wider than 13 Earths, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). The resulting CME temporarily knocked out half of the satellites orbiting Earth at the time and forced astronauts on the International Space Station to take cover from the radiation.

On Earth, the resulting geomagnetic storm raged for three days, creating temporary radio blackouts across large parts of the globe and even causing permanent damage to electrical infrastructure in some places. Auroras were also clearly visible as far south as California, Texas and Florida, according to NOAA.

Experts say the superpowered storm could have been the largest since the Carrington Event in 1859, which, excluding inexplicably powerful ancient Miyake events, is the most powerful known solar storm in human history.

If a solar storm as large as the 2003 behemoth hit Earth today, the repercussions could be much more terrifying because there are thousands more satellites in orbit and we are much more reliant on them than we were back then.

All indications suggest that the sun's upcoming period of peak activity, the solar maximum, will be the strongest in decades.

Harry Baker
Senior Staff Writer

Harry is a U.K.-based senior staff writer at Live Science. He studied marine biology at the University of Exeter before training to become a journalist. He covers a wide range of topics including space exploration, planetary science, space weather, climate change, animal behavior, evolution and paleontology. His feature on the upcoming solar maximum was shortlisted in the "top scoop" category at the National Council for the Training of Journalists (NCTJ) Awards for Excellence in 2023.