The Sun rises again

By Phil Plait | August 4, 2010 6:55 pm

Our nearest star has woken up for real and for sure. After several years of stubborn silence, the Sun has unleashed several fairly big explosions of material. Called Coronal Mass Ejections, or CMEs, these gigantic events blast out hundreds of billions of tons of matter into space. They create vast interplanetary shock waves, and when they reach the Earth can cause all sorts of havoc. They are different from solar flares, but have similar origins in the Sun’s magnetic field.


NASA’s recently-launched Solar Dynamics Observatory caught the action mid-eruption. This image shows million-degree-hot gas blasting off the surface, entangled in the Sun’s strong magnetic field. The most recent CMEs probably won’t do much more than give us pretty aurorae — they’ve already been spotted — which is good (worse effects are the loss of satellites and potential blackouts on Earth). In fact, if you live in the far north or south you may be able to see the light show.

You can read more about this at Orbiting Frog, SpaceWeather (with pictures!), Universe Today, and pretty much every other space blog on the planet. I’m probably too far south and in far too light-polluted skies to see, but give it a try if you can. Aurorae can be quite spectacular.

But if you miss it, don’t fret: I’m sure we’ll get lots of other opportunities. The Sun is gearing up for the peak of its cycle in the next three years or so, and there will be plenty of chances to watch as our sky reacts.

Image credit: NASA/SDO


Comments (27)

Links to this Post

  1. Solar storms coming our way this week? | Bad Astronomy | October 27, 2010
  1. Against all odds – and detailled predictions on the usual space weather tracking web sites – last night’s aurorae were seen well from Northern Germany at quite some distance from the regular auroral oval. Right now the (mostly cloudy, though) sky over the Baltic Sea is glowing again, I hear …

  2. Chip

    Have a cellphone ready to contact power plants in case of a solar induced overload and blackout. Immediately call and say: “This is General Zod. Just a small sample of my powers.”

  3. John Paradox

    I was cruising my RSS feed of the Internet Archive and came across some “woo” about this



  4. @ Chip:

    Yeah. And then prepare to run like hell before the FBI helicopters land in your front lawn!

  5. Pi-needles

    “The Sun rises again …” well it would do that wouldn’t it? 😉

    I think I can safely predict it will set again too! 😉

    Seriously, good news and images – good to see the SDO working well. :-)

  6. angrymonkey

    Am I the only one who sees the torso with its right hand outstretched ? At first I thought the picture was posted as another example of human images that our brains trick us into seeing.

  7. You sound so dismissive! Here in northern Washington our air is chockfull of particulate from forest fires but it’s not keeping me from a steady buzz of excitement. It’s been fun watching all the dials and bar graphs at the Space Weather Prediction Center spin and gyrate.

  8. Messier Tidy Upper

    I gather the last solar minima was unusually prolonged and the current cycle slow to get going. I’m wondering how the overall current solar cycle is going & whether predictions are for it to be a low quiet one or whether its going to start really building up now and how typical of past patterns the current cycle 24 is being.

    This :

    Both methods give larger than average amplitude to Cycle 24 while its delayed start and low minimum strongly suggest a much smaller cycle. Ohl’s method now indicates an amplitude of about 70 for Cycle 24. The smoothed aa index has reached its minimum (a record low) of 8.4 in September of 2009. Using Ohl’s method indicates a maximum sunspot number of about 70 ± 18 or less for cycle 24.

    From “Solar Cycle Prediction” from the NASA Marshall SpaceFlight Center (link will be given in a separate comment below to avoid a long “awaiting moderation” hold up for this comment) sounds interesting but very technical.

    Can somebody please “translate” that into plain english for the scientific layperson & put this in a bit of context? I’m struggling to grasp what it actually means relative to past solar cycles & I’m not sure if I’m grokking it correctly.

    OTOH, this part from the same source :

    We find a starting time of July 2008 with minimum occurring in November or December 2008 and maximum in June 2013.

    I *do* understand. We’ve much more to see sunspots & hence aurora~wise as things pick up towards 2013. I’m looking forward to that! :-)

  9. Messier Tidy Upper

    Here’s the link to the material I quoted above :

    & this link (from the Marshall Centre also) has some interesting background info on solar cycles and sunspot numbers too :

    Including these graphs of previous cycles :

    If that’s helpful or interesting for folks here.


    PS. A suggestion for the Marshall centre and a few other such sites – it might be a good idea to have a glossary and perhaps even a separate “For the non-scientist” page version available there to help members of the public who find some of the technical stuff really hard to comprehend.

    I love science and astronomy, I read widely in the area (I even write astronomy articles myself!) but some of the specialised items and jargon can get very hard to follow and off-putting at times. :-(

    One of the best things about Phil’s blog is how accessible he makes the science and how he shares the wonder of it in a way non-scientific people can easily follow and enjoy. :-)

  10. Yeebok

    But we won’t be here in 2013!! (lol)
    Without looking at the page, and trying to ‘mentally round some of it’ – the methods they refer to would be some form of predicting how lively things will be in the current cycle which I presume is 22 years..
    A larger than average amplitude means there’ll be more sunspots ‘this 22 years’ than on average.
    The smoothed aa index I assume means a method used to average the values (when doing a line chart, you’d have the odd spike – say an aberrant day where you had 20 bonus spots) so if you average the next, current and previous figures into a “rolling average” and chart that instead you can sometimes remove spikes in the data.

  11. DrFlimmer

    @ Dan Fisher

    Nice pictures!! :)

  12. Brian The Coyote

    I live at about 53 degrees N. and I can testify that it was a nice light show Tuesday night / Wednesday morning. It’s been a while since we had some good Aurora. These were far from the best ever but they were the strongest in some time.

  13. Joseph

    Start building your Faraday cages to store all your delicate electronics in. 😀

  14. Chrispy

    Will this have any affect on global temperatures? I had read a while back (probably on this very forum) that because of the lack of sun activity over the past years it has actually reduced some of the effects of AGW.

    What I am worried about (besides the warming thing!) is that this will just give the deniers another excuse to ignore/deny for a few more years. They will now say that the reason the temps are rising is because of sun activity. Well, yeah, I guess many of them have always been saying that. But the difference now would be that the rest of us won’t be able to just say that they are dead wrong. . we’d need to explain that the upswing in the sun cycle AND greenhouse gases are increasing the global temperatures. Nuance doesn’t play well with denialists.

    Anyway, is it true that the sun cycle can affect global temperatures? I want to be able to explain it correctly if it comes up.


  15. NASA has assured ISS FUBAR asstronaughts that they will not be fried like pork skins in boiling lard by the first active sun cycle in 12.5 years. OTOH, we don’t see any NASA management volunteering to rise above a yard-equivalent thickness of lead radiation shielding (without pair formation!) to earn their chicharrónes certificate.

  16. Alexander

    Gorgeous! Watching videos of CMEs always give me tingling feeling down my back as I think of the energy required to lobby these billions of tons of matter into outer space. A paltry human arm can hardly lift up a few pounds of iron, toss it up a few feet in the air, much less hurl it all the way into orbit.

    It’s millions of nuclear bombs going off at once!

  17. Tom O'Reilly

    How do I put this thing into shameless-plug mode? 😉
    I recently released an application called Solaris for Android phones – Solaris will notify you when geomagnetic storm level increases, or when the aurora might be overhead at your location (based on your phone’s GPS position). My phone buzzed a few times yesterday when the CME hit! The app displays electron and proton particle flux into the upper atmosphere, projected onto a 3D Earth globe (ala “Google Earth”). Also includes UV images of the Sun from STEREO and SDO spacecraft. You can download Solaris for free from the Android Market. Also see

  18. Messier Tidy Upper

    @9. Yeebok : Thanks. :-)

    The :

    larger than average amplitude …” vs “its delayed start and low minimum strongly suggest a much smaller cycle”

    bit still sounds a touch contradictory & confusing to my ears although I’m possibly misunderstanding and confusing two separate things – am I?

  19. Tribeca Mike

    That thing has got to be stopped!

  20. Brian Too

    @13. Joseph,

    Hey, all we need to do to protect all those satellites is to build a giant Faraday cage around the Earth!

    Oh, I’ve got it. First, we make it magnetic, not metallic. Saves material, money and energy. OK, the best way to do that is… to make the Earth a magnet, yeah, that’s it! So we put a magnet at the Earth’s core and envelope the entire planet in a protective magnetic field. We could name the field structure after someone like, I don’t know, Ann Vallen or something.

    What’s that? Been there, done that?? Oh man…

  21. MadScientist

    Wow – that’s an enormous storm. That’s got to be one of the largest I’ve seen photographed over the past 50 years.

    Dang, I’m not in the North so I guess I’ll miss the light show (unless I’m lucky enough to see one this far north in the S. hemisphere – I could see one if I traveled much further south).

  22. Yeebok

    @messier – Yes you have the terms a bit mixed. The amplitude it’s referring to is the “height” of the data. The cycle is the length of the period (solar cycle in this case).
    I assume you know of a bell curve ? Imagine one showing sunspot quantities covering one entire solar cycle – a ‘perfect bell curve’ for argument’s sake. (see : – Wikipedia) The first chart on that page (here : – also wikipedia) – the ‘normal’ period would be the green line. The incoming period would be the blue one – it is narrower but higher – a shorter cycle with higher amplitude.
    Hope that helps.

  23. Captn Tommy

    I am amazed at the 3 dimensional stucture of the CME, coming from the surface toward the point of view.

    Awfull it is, in a terrible beauty
    Its grasp a thousand times a thousand wide,
    Reached for me.
    And in my wonder, I felt the hand of God

    Captn Tommy

  24. Brian Too

    Why are these detailed pictures of the sun always so cool? Is it something to do with a “hidden in plain sight” angle? Seeing the familiar in an unfamiliar way? New light, so to speak?

  25. Messier Tidy Upper

    @22.Yeebok : Yes that helps indeed. Thanks for that explaination. :-)

  26. mnpundit

    You know, in Assassin’s Creed II the over-arching story is supposedly a magnetic pole shift, but given the clues I thought it would be more interesting if it was predicting a giant CME for 2012. So I was wondering could a truly unprecedented enormous CME in a time when the Earth’s magnetic field as week, lead to massive radiation hitting the living things (plants animals) on the ground?


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