Huge solar eruption caught by SDO!

By Phil Plait | April 29, 2010 7:00 am

On April 19, 2010, NASA’s newly-launched Solar Dynamics Observatory caught a massive eruption on the Sun, called a prominence, as it blasted millions of tons of 60,000 K (100,000° F) gas off the surface of the Sun. Check out this amazing footage as the material blows upward, then rains back down onto the Sun’s surface.

Holy Haleakala! If you watch carefully, you can see little hot spots flash as the gas hits the Sun again. At about 31 seconds, a thin streamer comes screaming back down; look carefully where it hits and you’ll see those spots. This animation is actually about four hours worth of images strung together.

Note the scale of this scene: it shows a region about 100,000 km (60,000 miles) across! The Earth would easily fit under the arch of this rising gas.

Oh– before you ask, that dark hair-like thing is a piece of dust or some other detritus in the SDO camera. That’s aggravating, but I’m hoping the engineers will figure out a way of getting rid of it or at least minimizing its influence.

Prominences like this have been seen for decades, but never in this much detail. And even though SDO has only been flying for a few weeks, it’s already solved one mystery: why the rain of gas moves more slowly than expected as it rains back down. You can’t see it in this video (but you can on this page about SDO) but there is a layer of much hotter gas near the surface of the Sun. This gas, at about 1,000,000 Kelvin (1.7 million° F) cushions the fall of the rain, slowing it down. SDO’s high resolution and ability to measure the temperature of the gas allows astronomers to understand this phenomenon for the first time.

SDO is extremely cool, and will be providing solar astronomers with more data than they can possibly handle for decades. But that’s good! It’s always nice to have more data than less. The Sun is fiendishly complex and difficult to understand in detail, so SDO will be an incredibly useful tool to help astronomers figure out what’s what.

After all: there not be anything new under the Sun, but there are always new ways of looking at it.

Credit: SDO/AIA

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Astronomy, NASA

Comments (39)

  1. PicoJoules
  2. Jeff

    Yes, very nice. I like how these new observatories in space are basically making real time videos showing PROCESSES occuring on sun, Mars, etc.

  3. ND

    And the Earth is how small compared to these eruptions? :)

  4. Messier Tidy Upper

    Spectacular. :-)

    I’d say this was very cool footage but given the temperature’s involved that doesn’t sound quite right. ;-)

    There were other dramatic images from the SDO on the local (South Australian) TV news and in our papers just a few days ago. (NB. If anyone can find a copy, it’s in The Australian newspaper, Page 9 , 2010 April 23rd & screened the ABC & other TV news that day or the day before as well.)

    Oh– before you ask, that dark hair-like thing is a piece of dust or some other detritus in the SDO camera. That’s aggravating, but I’m hoping the engineers will figure out a way of getting rid of it or at least minimizing its influence.

    What the Solar Dynamic Observatory has all these whizz bang amazing bits of tech and yet nobody remembered to add a windscreen wiper!? ;-)

    Seriously, that is annoying – hope they find a way to fix it. Of course we could schedule a shuttle mission to go up and fix it like they did with Hubble .. Oh wait, we can’t. :-(

    @ 3. ND Says:

    And the Earth is how small compared to these eruptions?

    *Very!* ;-)

  5. I wondered about that hair artifact. Somewhere, there’s an engineer with a beard whose colleagues won’t let him near another piece of equipment until he shaves.

  6. Blondin

    The Earth’s diameter is 12,700Km to the Sun’s 1,390,000. You could stretch about 109 Earths across the face of the Sun.

  7. Pi-needles

    ^ If you had 109 Earth’s to spare that is! ;-)

    Plus the technology for moving and positioning and stretching them too.

  8. Nicole

    Yep…totally agree with you…it’s “gnarly”!

  9. Tom Ogletree

    check out the 8-12 second time frame and the round thing that comes in from around 2ish o’clock

  10. Charles

    So, you mention that there are two “gasses”, one at 1.7 million °F. Is “gas” a technical term for this state of matter? What are the elements that make up either of these gasses (if they are indeed elements).

    Maybe I just need to do some wikireading…

  11. Way cool stuff here! :)

    Oh, and posting again: Off topic: Could the AF maybe be taking over the space shuttle mission?

    http://www.military.com/news/article/af-launches-space-plane-amid-secrecy.html?ESRC=airforce-a.nl

    Would love to hear your thoughts on this.

  12. IVAN3MAN AT LARGE

    Carey(#5):

    I wondered about that hair artifact. Somewhere, there’s an engineer with a beard whose colleagues won’t let him near another piece of equipment until he shaves.

    Maybe he was shaving (with an electric razor) with one hand while working with the other!

  13. Kendall

    At about 9 seconds into the video, something approaches from the right. Did some kind of debris strike cause the eruption? I watched it 5 times and it precedes the activity.

    I just watched again and the object follows a curved path. Probably sent along a magnetic field line.

  14. Who decided to call such a gorgeous, dramatic event a “prominence”? (Don’t try to tell me astronomers have no poetry in their souls. I don’t buy it.)

  15. Chris

    Hey Phil. If it’s at 10^5 – 10^6 K, it’s not gas anymore. It’s plasma!!!

  16. Chip

    I was wondering about sound on the Sun. I know massive low-frequency sound waves have been researched but on the puny human scale, there’s a difference between silence and a sound no one hears. If you could float around on the Sun’s surface at the impact of the prominence or anywhere else in the Sun, without being effected by heat, radiation, gravity, turbulence, blinding brightness, etc., and could still hear within the human hearing range, I think the sound would be deafening since such sound waves are traveling up through the erupting gases. Or is that wrong?

  17. jim moore

    Very disappointing post Phil.
    Why are you deliberately misleading your readers?
    You know the correct scientific term for the matter making up the prominences is plasma, not gas. Gas is not effected by magnetic fields nor does it carry electricity, Plasma does both. Plasma is considered to be the 4th state of matter for good reasons.

    You don’t have to agree with the Eclectic Universe folks to use the correct term, plasma.

  18. Regner Trampedach

    Charles @ 10: The solar composition in the convection zone (outer 1/3) and out to the chromosphere (the cushioning layer mentioned in the post) is:
    1 H 73.7300%
    2 He 24.9212%
    3 Li 0.00000001%
    4 Be 0.00000002%
    5 B 0.00000040%
    6 C 0.231%
    7 N 0.0693%
    8 O 0.587%
    9 F 0.0000504%
    10 Ne 0.129%
    11 Na 0.00273%
    12 Mg 0.0676%
    13 Al 0.00531%
    14 Si 0.0665%
    15 P 0.000609%
    16 S 0.0331%
    17 Cl 0.000820%
    18 Ar 0.00734%
    19 K 0.000300%
    20 Ca 0.00641%
    21 Sc 0.00000454%
    22 Ti 0.000327%
    23 V 0.0000332%
    24 Cr 0.00148%
    25 Mn 0.00103%
    26 Fe 0.132%
    27 Co 0.000393%
    28 Ni 0.00681%
    29 Cu 0.0000688%
    30 Zn 0.000174%
    for the fist 30 elements, according to recent work I was also involved in (Asplund et al. 2009). Further out there are dynamic and magnetic effects which differentiate the elements, and below the convection zone He and heavier elements (called metals in astro-parlour) settle out of the well-mixed convection zone and into the radiative zone (which isn’t “stirred”) due to gravity.
    The high temperatures ionize the atoms so the gas is a plasma – but it is not wrong to say it is a gas.
    I don’t think it is correct to think of them as two separate gasses: There is a lot of mixing between the corona and the chromosphere and the (Sun’s) low atmosphere, but they are distinguished by their different temperatures and densities, and therefore also by what physical processes dominate.
    Cheers, Regner

  19. Context-sensitive advertising strikes again. YouTube’s ad at the bottom of the video shows me “kickboxing burns calories”. (I bet it’s less calories than the Sun is “burning”.)

  20. Steve Jesmer

    I was just reading some comments on the NASA site and have some questions and I hope someone will answer them. Someone there said that this prominence is “a ball of fire”, and is (more or less) hemisherical as it expands. I remember reading that these things are “loops” having something to do with magnetism. Which is true?. Also, are these prominences the same as flares?

  21. Charles

    Regner @18:

    Thanks for the info, I have a better understanding now.

  22. jim moore

    Regner,

    I know that many astronomers use the term gas for both gaseous phenomenon and plasma phenomenon. But it is often used so haphazardly it obscures the nature of what is being studied. In this situation we have several problems calling this phenomenon gaseous. First- a gas can not reach these temperatures without ionizing.
    Second- large magnetic fields are in play – this means that the behavior of a gas and plasma will be wildly different. (a gas won’t respond, plasma will respond to magnetic fields)
    Third –Moving ions also constitute an electric current, and that current will generate its own magnetic field (which complicates things).

    I just wish that astronomers would care enough about their audience to use the most accurate terms possible so that they inform rather than mislead.

    ( for anyone who doesn’t think that ion’s and gasses are really different, I will go stand in a room with ionized chlorine if you will stay in a room with gaseous chlorine ;-)

  23. jcm

    Stellar. BTW, wouldn’t the gas be more accurately described as plasma?

  24. ND

    oh boy. Here come the EU/PC people.

    Poor plasma, getting the bum rap once again.

    jim moore, I don’t think anyone is confused about the state of matter in those flares. Scientists in different fields sometimes do use terms slightly differently for the same physical phenomenon.

  25. jim moore

    ND
    What I am hoping for is that astronomers try harder to more clearly communicate to their audience . When a scientist uses the term “gas” it should have meaning, like conforming to equation PV=nRT . The matter in the solar prominences does not behave like a gas.

    As for no one being confused, look at the video again, because Phil is confused, gas does not respond to magnetic fields, the material no more “rains back down” that it rained up.
    Why did it form a loop?
    Why is it filamentary?
    Why do the filaments twist around each other in a helical pattern?
    The aswers to those questions have nothing to do with simple gases.

  26. ND

    jim moore,

    Are you for real? Are you seriously saying that Phil does not know that neutral gas is not influenced by magnetic fields? Are you seriously saying he and Astronomers are confused about solar flares? I suppose you’ll also say they don’t know the Sun is one big ball of plasma.

    Who are you to be lecturing scientists? Are you an engineer?

  27. jim moore

    ND,
    I am sure that Phil and other astronomers understand that neutral gas is not ifluenced by magnetic fields.

    All that I am asking is that Phil and friends write with greater precesion. If what you are studing is showing the behavior of plasma you should call it plasma or at least ionized gas (–must use ionized in front of gas–). To say that a solar prominence is made out of gas is as wrong as to say it is made out of liquid.

    Or so says my inner high school english teacher: “Write what you mean, not what you think you mean.”

  28. Regner Trampedach

    Jim Moore, the term plasma means the subset of the gas-phase where the gas is ionized.
    * The opposite of an ionized gas (a plasma) is a neutral gas.
    * A cold and dense (if not too dense) gas will be neutral and a hot and/or rarefied gas will be ionized.
    * The ionized gas will respond to magnetic fields, the neutral will not.
    * Neither ionized nor neutral gasses obey PV=nRT, but it is an equally good rough estimate for both of them.
    * The matter in solar prominences most definitely behaves like a gas – an ionized gas that is shaped by magnetic fields, heated by the radiation field from the photosphere, and obeying its equation of state, of which PV=nRT is the very simplest approximation.
    Gaseously Yours, Regner

  29. Steve Morrison

    All that I am asking is that Phil and friends write with greater precesion

    Oh, the ireny…

  30. ND

    “All that I am asking is that Phil and friends write with greater precesion”

    Why? It’s understood what prominences are. There is no deliberate or unintentional misleading against plasma here, as you so nicely trolled by saying “Why are you deliberately misleading your readers?”

    I’m sorry if I’m being reactionary here but I’ve seen such use of red herrings from EU/PC promoters to try and discredit astronomers and other scientists in the field who are doing actual research.

  31. Gary Ansorge

    Cool Pics!

    Gary 7

  32. Zippy the Pinhead

    To be pedantic, ions do not “follow” magnetic field lines (in the sense of magnetic particles like iron filings aligning in a magnetic field). f = q v x B (Lorentz force law, x here being the vector cross product), so that the ions are accelerated in a direction perpendicular to the magnetic field B and their velocity v (hence the observed looping of charged particles in a magnetic field).

  33. Messier Tidy Upper

    Me #4 :

    There were other dramatic images from the SDO on the local (South Australian) TV news and in our papers just a few days ago. (NB. If anyone can find a copy, it’s in The Australian newspaper, Page 9 , 2010 April 23rd & screened the ABC & other TV news that day or the day before as well.)

    Which, I’m pretty sure, are these one’s the BA’s just posted here :

    http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/badastronomy/2010/04/30/sdo-opens-its-eyes-and-sees-our-star-like-never-before/

    @31 ND : I’ve seen such use of red herrings from EU/PC

    Mmm .. red herrings – delicious. ;-)

    But why do the European Union / Politicially Correct folks use ‘em so much – that *is* who you were meaning right? ;-)

    (Or not [Electric Universe / Plasma Cosmology rather] as the case may be.)

  34. ND

    That’s Eclectic Universe to you Tidy buddy! :)

    I prefer smoked herring myself.

    And as for European Union, maybe they should kick Greece out.

NEW ON DISCOVER
OPEN
CITIZEN SCIENCE
ADVERTISEMENT

Discover's Newsletter

Sign up to get the latest science news delivered weekly right to your inbox!

ADVERTISEMENT

See More

ADVERTISEMENT
Collapse bottom bar
+

Login to your Account

X
E-mail address:
Password:
Remember me
Forgot your password?
No problem. Click here to have it e-mailed to you.

Not Registered Yet?

Register now for FREE. Registration only takes a few minutes to complete. Register now »