What is a solar flare? And more importantly, can it hurt planet Earth?

How’s this for a scary sentence: today, March 14th, a solar storm is currently hurtling towards Earth. The idea of a solar storm seems pretty terrifying and may conjure up images not unlike those from Armageddon. Luckily, today’s solar storm isn’t supposed to be dangerous, and shouldn’t cause any damage, but understanding what it actually is might put your mind at ease. In order to know what a solar storm is, though, you need to first know: What is a solar flare?

A solar storm typically begins with a solar flare. A solar flare is a huge explosion on the surface of the sun that sends all sorts of particles and energy flying into space. Solar flares can be small and very innocent, or giant and potentially life-threatening. Life-threatening, as in they could end the world as we know it. Yes, seriously.

According to NASA, a flare is “our solar system’s largest explosive event.” They can last anywhere from minutes to hours, and there are different kinds. There are small, C-class flares, which happen quite often and do nothing to our planet. Then there are mid-sized M-class flares, which can cause small radio disruptions. Lastly, there’s the X-class flare, known as the largest explosion in the solar system. An X-class flare can release “up to a billion hydrogen bombs worth of energy.” Fortunately, they do not happen very often.

So could a solar flare be the end of planet Earth?

Well, yeah, possibly, but the odds of that happening are very small. According to New Scientist, an enormous solar flare hit Earth about 150 years ago and if that happened again, it could knock out a lot of electrical grids, satellite communications, and the internet. The site also says that scientists believe that this kind of event could happen within the next century.

Scientists say that “the most extreme superflares” will occur on the sun about every 20 million years. The worst of them could destroy our ozone layer, which could ruin the ecosystem and cause DNA mutations. What we probably have to worry about, though, are smaller solar flares that could mess with technology and make our lives very difficult.

Don’t start panicking, though! The solar storm hitting Earth today isn’t going to ruin anything — in fact, it’s going to be quite beautiful. As a result of the storm, auroras will intensify, and parts of the country, like Michigan and Maine, may be able to see a glimpse of the Northern Lights.

It looks like a solar flare won’t end the world today. I don’t know about you, but I feel a lot more at ease.