People living in the northern part of the United States could be in for a spectacular show Friday night, as the charged particles associated with Thursday's X-Class solar flare could potentially cause a colorful aurora, according to NASA scientists.
The aurora will only be visible if it hits at night, which is a decent possibility, according to Phillip Chamberlin, of NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory.
"We could see auroras as south as down here in [Washington] D.C.," he said. "Obviously, you have a better chance if you're up north."
People interested in seeing the aurora, known in some places as the "northern lights," should monitor NOAA's Space Weather Prediction Center's prediction of the flare's magnetic activity and compare it to the map provided. According to Chamberlin, people in New England, the Pacific Northwest, and Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Michigan, are likely to see the aurora if the particles hit at night.
"People in rural areas have a better shot, and you're not going to see them if it hits in the day," Chamberlin says.
The particles could also potentially wreak havoc on satellites, and there's a chance for an additional eruption from the active region responsible for Thursday's flare—which is more than 25 Earths wide—over the weekend, according to NASA scientists.
"There's the potential for another X-Class flare, it's still a large active region, and there's still signs it could erupt again," Chamberlin says. Even if there is an additional eruption, the storms are unlikely to have a "stacking" effect, he says.
This year has been a particularly active one for the sun, which is entering its most volatile period. Previous flares this year have temporarily knocked military and other satellites offline, and larger flares have the potential to cause power outages on earth.
NASA scientists can measure the size of a solar flare fairly quickly after it erupts, but it takes longer to tell whether or not there will be any effect to electronics on earth or man-made satellites. That's because the particles that can wreak havoc, called a "coronal mass ejection"—a burst of solar wind and magnetically-charged particles—take between one and three days to reach earth.
When the CME passes NASA's Advanced Composition Explorer satellite parked about 1 million miles from Earth, scientists will have an accurate reading about the flare's terrestrial impacts. From then, they have about an hour to warn satellite and power operators to shut down critical systems.
"We're not going to truly know its impacts until it hits that ACE spacecraft," Chamberlin says.
Jason Koebler is a science and technology reporter for U.S. News & World Report. You can follow him on Twitter or reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org