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Sun storms: solar activity at fiery high

AR1515, a massive area on the sun's surface that is responsible for most recent solar flares

(CBS News) This has already been a summer of record heat in the continental United States. But our sun is not content with just breaking records in the first week of July. It has also been an intense period of solar flares - massive, violent outbursts from the sun that can wreck havoc here on Earth. And it shows no signs of stopping. Even on the surface of the sun, things are heating up.

Last week saw several huge solar flares, the biggest of which occurred on Friday, July 6. Labeled an X1.1 class solar flare - the strongest classification used by the U.S. Space Weather Prediction Center - the sun storm caused radio blackouts here on Earth as particles ejected from the sun crashed into our planet's atmosphere. It was the fifth X-class solar flare of 2012.

Earlier in the week, several other powerful solar flares erupted from the sun. Most of them appear to be coming from the same area of our star: a giant sunspot called AR1515. Technically a group of sunspots, AR1515 is an enormous plain of volatile activity. NASA estimates AR1515 stretches across 118,681 miles, making it longer than fifteen Earths put together.

Solar flares are divided into A, B, C, M, and X classes. According to NASA, only C, M and X-class solar flares can have direct impacts on Earth. Like the Richter scale, each letter represents an exponential increase over the lower classes.

More solar flares are expected in the future, as the sun is in the midst of an active phase. The sun has weather patterns, just like Earth, that cycle every 11 years. The current cycle is called Solar Cycle 24 and is expected to peak in 2013.