The Sun blasts out a flare and a huge filament

By Phil Plait | November 13, 2010 7:00 am

Never forget: the Sun is a star, a mighty ball of ionized gas, and when a star throws a tantrum, even a small one is epic.

And the Sun just sent us a little reminder: NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory caught this amazing sequence of a sunspot blasting out a flare, then shooting out a long streamer of plasma:

[Direct link to YouTube video here]

Wow! So what are we seeing here?

SDO views the Sun in many wavelengths, and in this case we’re looking at ultraviolet light form the Sun so energetic it’s almost X-rays. The bright spot is actually a sunspot! They’re dark in the kind of light we see with our eyes* but can be very bright at other wavelengths. Sunspots are regions of intense magnetic field concentration; magnetic loops arc out of the spot, reach into space, then head back down. They seethe with vast amounts of energy, which can be released explosively under some conditions.

That’s what happened here. The magnetic field loops in Sunspot 1123 suddenly and cataclysmically released all their energy in the early morning of November 12, blasting it outward as a solar flare — you can see that as the intense flash of light coming from the bright region in the center of the video. This explosive event also launched a streamer of plasma off the Sun’s surface, flowing outward along the Sun’s magnetic field. Although the plasma is very hot, we see it silhouetted against the Sun’s surface, so it looks dark. This type of streamer is called a filament (had we seen it against the darkness of space, it would look bright, and be called a prominence). You can see it heading roughly in our direction at the end of the video. Don’t worry though, it won’t hit us!

And as if this weren’t enough, along with this event was a small coronal mass ejection. This is when a huge blast of subatomic particles is lofted into space by the Sun, and they sometimes (but not always) occur with flares. Happily for us, the CME will miss the Earth; when they hit they can cause damage to our satellites, as well as mess with our power grid here on the Earth’s surface.

However, don’t rest easy. We’re only at the beginning of this solar cycle, when the Sun’s twisted and complex magnetic field is starting to act up. It’ll build for the next two or three years, reaching a peak in late 2013 or 2014. We’ll probably see some pretty big flares and CMEs then, which means aurorae (yay!) and potential problems with our power grid (boo!). I doubt we’ll see the kind of damage breathless doomcriers will no doubt promulgate, but the thing is, we just don’t know. Will this be a big, violent peak, or a relatively quiet one?

We just have to wait and see. But I’m glad we have observatories like SDO watching the Sun so carefully. The more we know about it, the better.

Incidentally, I have quite a bit more detail about the Sun, spots, flares, and CMEs in chapter 2 of my book Death from the Skies! Just so’s you know.

* I’ll note that actually the plasma in the sunspot is very hot, and were it floating in space it would glow very brightly. It only looks dark because the Sun’s surface around it is so much brighter.

Related posts:

The Sun kick starts its cycle once again
One solar piece of flare
The Sun rises again


Comments (35)

  1. Ross

    Nice article. I really must get around to reading that book!

  2. Cindy

    So are you going to wait until it’s closer to solar max to film that chapter of your book for your TV show?

  3. Thanks for the explanation. It’s far more satisfying than my initial theory that the sun was birthing a shadow demon.

  4. don gisselbeck

    It is amazing that this video has only 300 some views while the claim that the flare was caused by Nibiru has over

  5. Gary Ansorge

    Super slow motion would be cool. I love watching a filament expand, slowly reaching out its tenuous fingers to grasp our fragile eco system and exert CRUSHING FORCE,,,ok, maybe a slight exaggeration.

    Great pics, Phil.

    Gary 7

  6. Leo

    Off topic, but does anyone want to venture a guess about this:

  7. Messier Tidy Upper

    Looks like the Sun is acting like a snake or lizard flicking its tongue out to sense its surroundings. Except that tongue is a huge filament of plasma that could probably swallow the Earth many times over! ūüėČ

    Great clip – thanks. :-)

    Nice to see the solar cycle building up & getting more active. It *is* returning to normal sunspot cycle~wise right?

  8. Residents of ISS FUBAR can rest easy knowing they are not supposed to be cooked medium rare. Seems to Uncle Al that extended magnetic field geometry would tend to direct high latitude solar emissions curving toward the equator.

  9. Dax

    You mean we’ll still be here after 2012?

  10. chris j.

    i thought sunspots aren’t actually “dark in the kind of light we see with our eyes”; they just look that way because the nearby photosphere is so much brighter.

  11. chris j (10): Yes, you’re correct. I was taking a verbal shortcut. I should make that more clear…

  12. Jamey

    Leo @6 – Hard to make guesses, since “our cosmic neighborhood”, depending on what kind of astronomer is talking, can mean anything from cis-lunar space (I can’t imagine Chandra picking up something *that* close), to Oort Cloud region, to this side of the Milky Way core, to this side of Andromeda, to anything within the local supercluster. For being scientists, Astronomers can be amazingly imprecise sometimes. Look at how they address the elements – there’s hydrogen, helium, and “the metals”.

  13. blf

    I hope it had the grace to say ‘excuse me’ after that…

  14. AJ in CA

    Wow, that’s the biggest fireworks show around! Too bad you can’t embed video in dead-tree books – that one would go fabulously with the solar events chapter of DftS, Phil :)
    Just curious, any idea what the time scale is for those images?
    Also, do scientists know exactly what causes this regular 11 year solar cycle?

  15. Jon Hanford

    @6 Leo & 12 Jamey:

    Note that Alex Filippenko and Kim Weaver will be among the “panelists providing analysis of the research”. Their particular *specialties* might help narrow the possibilities somewhat (likely not an object in our Milky Way galaxy).

  16. MadScientist

    I want the particles to hit earth; for once I’m in a good position to see aurorae. Then again I need those clouds to clear.

  17. Jamey

    @15 Jon – Certainly, most likely extra-galactic. Most significant X-ray sources seem to be extra-galactic. Still, in a press release, “cosmic neighborhood” is rather poorly descriptive.

  18. DrFlimmer

    You wrote a book? ūüėÄ

  19. Looks like a missile.

  20. khms

    you can see that as the intense flash of light coming from the bright region in the center of the video.

    There’s an intense flash of light somewhere in this video?

    Even after going through it half a dozen times, I can see no such thing. There’s a rather unremarkable event where the bright dot gets slightly larger for a moment. It’s so unremarkable I was only able to see it about every third attempt.

    This explosive event also launched a streamer of plasma off the Sun’s surface, flowing outward along the Sun’s magnetic field.

    I can just about make that one out. Again it’s rather hard to see, in this case mainly because it’s MUCH too fast.

    Umm … if I interpret the markings of that video correctly, YouTube thinks it’s one second long. That feels just about right.

    Whoever created that: what on earth were they thinking? Could it possibly be any crappier and harder to make out anything in it?

  21. Chip

    Assuming the video is in real time, that plasma filament is moving many thousands of kilometers in less than a second! That’s a whole lot of solar “oomph”.

  22. Charles Sullivan

    Holy Haleakala, as Phil might say. Cool, er, I mean hot!

  23. Terry

    Also, do scientists know exactly what causes this regular 11 year solar cycle?

    I don’t know if scientists know exactly what causes it, but I do know that the overall magnetic field of the sun flips every 11 years. Of course, with how complex the suns magnetic field is, I’m not sure how you’d be able to tell. Earth has two poles. The sun has hundreds due to the hot gasses flooding back and forth. I guess, overall they add up to make a big one. I guess we need an astronomer to tell us…

    I haven’t read the book yet. On my to do list. I guess there is a chapter on the Carrington event? That’s one of my favorite unused disaster motifs for stories. I’m going to do a Carrington event story sometime.

  24. MadScientist

    @Terry #23: The alignment of the sun’s magnetic field is inferred from the movement of plasma ejected from the sun. The strength of the magnetic field is estimated from the Zeeman effect on some spectral lines. Polarimetry can also be used to determine the magnetic fields around sunspots. Some techniques used date back to ~1920 while others date to ~1946, so the basic ideas are pretty old even though the instruments have improved tremendously.


  25. Pete Jackson

    @20 khms, The bright flash is at the very beginning of the video. You have to be really fast on the pause button to catch it.

  26. @23 Terry: What’s REALLY scary is that the majority of the sun’s poles show Sarah Palin leading for 2012.

  27. Paddy

    The start of this article reminds me of this They Might Be Giants video:
    (and, of course, this correction: )

  28. Pepijn

    @khms: the flash and the plasma streamers are extremely obvious. You can’t really miss either of them. The flash may last only one frame, but it’s bright enough to cause glare. And you can clearly see dark streamers moving down from it afterwards. It may all go very fast, but not so fast you can miss it in a one second video…

    @Chip: I don’t think the video is in real time, as you can clearly see the sun rotate even in the space of one second. I don’t know how fast the sun spins on its axis, but I don’t think it’s *that* fast.

  29. Joseph

    Question: would it be possible/practical/’good idea’ to turn a room in a house into a Faraday Cage as protection from the potential EM waves from the potentially crazy upcoming Sun flares?

    I know they can overload and blow out power grids, what can they do to my home appliances and computers and would a Faraday cage protect them?

  30. AJ in CA

    @#23 Terry: Not a chapter on the Carrington event specifically, but it is touched on, yes. IIRC, the chapter about the sun includes solar flares, CMEs, and the ultimate expansion of the sun as it ages.

  31. Ross

    #29, if I understand correctly, the danger from solar flares and CMEs is not EM radiation, but fluctuations in the Earth’s magnetic field. The induced electric current caused by these fluctuations is what causes the damage. This is why things like power transformers and really loooong wires such as power lines are particularly suceptable. AFAIK, there is no way to sheild against magnetic fields.

    If this is not accurate, please someone correct me.

  32. Buzz Parsec

    Joseph @ 29, my house is already a Faraday cage. It has expended metal lath in all the plaster walls, which plays hell with WiFi and cell phone reception. (It isn’t grounded so it isn’t really a very good Faraday cage, though.)

    As far as power grid surges blowing out the stuff in your house, I don’t think a Faraday cage would help, since the power surge would be coming in on your main power feed over the wires. You could put a 1-1 transformer on each lead, which would pass 110/220 AC while blocking DC power surges, but it would cost something in efficiency. (No idea how much, but my WAG would be 10-20%.)


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