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Peggy Whitson is back from the International Space Station after breaking a list of records, and a major solar storm delivered the biggest solar flare we've seen in over a decade.

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Between the most experienced astronaut coming home and the strongest solar flare in 11 years, the past couple of weeks have been full of record-smashing in the world of astronomy and space travel.

First, on September 2, NASA astronaut Peggy Whitson returned from the International Space Station with a bunch of new records under her belt. Whitson had been to the ISS before, and this time, she was up there for 288 days; more than nine months!

It was such a long trip that she’s now spent more uninterrupted time in space than any other woman in the world. And in total, she’s also spent more time in space than any other American, period: a total of 665 days! She was originally supposed to come home in June, but she had the opportunity to stay for an extra few months and jumped on it.

On this trip, Whitson also became the oldest woman to go to space. She was 56 years old when she left Earth, and she celebrated her 57th birthday on the Space Station, which sounds like a pretty awesome birthday party. Whitson has also done ten spacewalks, the most of any woman, was the first female commander of the ISS, and is also the only woman to have taken command of the Space Station twice!

Besides being a record-shattering machine, Whitson is an accomplished biochemist, and did a lot of work while in orbit. A big advantage of doing science aboard the Space Station is the microgravity, or weightlessness. Scientists can look at systems that we understand well on Earth, and learn what they’ll do when they’re not feeling gravity pulling them to the ground.

Along with another astronaut, Colonel Jack Fischer, Whitson conducted experiments to learn more about what causes the vision problems many astronauts experience in microgravity. She also worked on projects designed to see what microgravity does to stem cells, and to antibodies that could be effective in cancer treatments. And just by being there, she and all the astronauts on the ISS helped NASA’s ongoing effort to figure out what happens to our bodies when we spend a long time in space, which will be especially important once we start going on longer missions, like to Mars.

Not many astronauts stay on the ISS for more than six months at a time, so Whitson is giving researchers an unusual amount of data. And now that she’s back, she’ll continue to be a scientific rockstar here on Earth, at least, once she gets used to gravity again. Meanwhile, just after she made it home, a major solar storm kicked off!

It began as a mid-sized event on September 4th, but quickly became an intense storm that lasted into this week. Solar storms happen when the Sun releases a bunch of built-up magnetic energy, which causes explosions called solar flares and coronal mass ejections that can interact with the Earth’s atmosphere. Solar flares are given a letter and number to describe how intense they are.

The weakest ones are class A, followed by classes B, C, M, and X. Class X solar flares are the strongest. They’re at least ten thousand times stronger than class A.

There were a few different flares, but the largest one in this storm occurred on September 6th with a magnitude of X9.3, the strongest we’ve seen since 2006. Solar storms can’t harm humans on the ground because Earth’s atmosphere protects us, but storms of this magnitude can mess with satellites and power grids. Thankfully, it doesn’t seem like there were any major failures this time, but we were still able to see the storm’s effects!

After larger flares, there were short, high-frequency radio blackouts, and the Northern Lights were observed as far south as North Carolina! What’s unusual about this storm isn’t just its intensity. It also showed up as we’re moving toward a period of minimal solar activity.

The Sun’s activity level, which includes events like solar flares, is on an 11-year cycle, where activity gets really high, then low, then high again. Right now, it’s on its way to the lowest part of that cycle, but we still got a random, huge solar storm in the middle of that. The X9.3 solar flare was actually the largest one recorded during this entire solar cycle!

It might sound weird, but a burst like this during the less active part of the cycle isn’t unheard of. In the long run, the Sun’s activity is still going down, but sometimes there happens to be a random strong event along the way. So it’s not totally strange, just kind of surprising and special.

And there was no major damage. But since we know a strong enough explosion from the Sun could knock out our power grids and communications systems, we’re still trying to get better at predicting them. And one way we’re hoping to learn more is through the Parker Solar Probe, which we talked about back when the mission was first getting started.

It’ll launch in 2018 and investigate all sorts of mysteries about the Sun. Until then, we’ll keep monitoring this storm as it calms down, and keep an eye out for others. Thanks for watching this episode of SciShow Space News!

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