A HUGE looping prominence on the Sun!

By Phil Plait | December 6, 2010 11:47 am

Holy cow, thanks to Emily Lakdwalla and mars_stu, here is a freaking enormous loop of plasma arcing off the surface of the Sun:

sdo304_dec62010

[Click to enfilamenate.]

That was taken by the Solar Dynamics Observatory at about 17:50 UT, or just an hour or so ago as I post this. Wow! That prominence must be nearly a million kilometers across! [Update: Geeked on Goddard estimates it at 700,000 km.] Mind you, on the scale of this image, the entire Earth would be about 5 pixels in size.

Yegads.

OK, a few things:

1) First, there is very little danger to Earth from this event. Prominences like this tend to be local to the Sun, and collapse after a few hours. As far as I can tell, there are no flares or coronal mass ejections associated with this, which are what can hurt satellites and power grids here at home. So rest easy, and enjoy the beauty of this thing.


sdo4500_dec620102) Amazingly, there is no hint of this event in this SDO visible light image (seen here; click to embiggen) taken at nearly the same time. The false-color image of the prominence above is actually taken in the ultraviolet, where low-density helium glows. In visible light, the light from the extremely thin material in the prominence is totally overwhelmed by the intense emission from the Sun’s surface, and is invisible. It’s only when we filter out most of the Sun’s light (and let through light specifically given off by the plasma in the prominence) that we can see it at all.

3) Note that the dark sunspots in the visible light image are seen as being very bright in the ultraviolet helium image. The Sun’s magnetic field is incredibly complex, with gigantic loops of magnetic field lines piercing through the Sun’s surface and re-entering some distance away. Sunspots are where the magnetic field strength is high. This prevents the gas from rising and falling in the Sun, so packets of gas boiling up from below reach the surface and cool off a bit, darkening. But in the ultraviolet, the magnetic energy is more easily seen, making the spots look bright.

That goes to show you that what we see in the heavens is not all we get. Our understanding of the Sun comes from centuries of observations, but it’s only been in the past few decades that we’ve let our vision widen to include light our eyes cannot detect. And when we do that we find our local star to be a vastly more interesting place than we had ever dreamed of.


Related posts:

- The boiling, erupting Sun
- SDO opens its eyes and sees our star like never before
- The Sun blasts out a huge filament


Comments (64)

  1. Wow!

    Wish we could get a top down view of that sucker so we can see how far out it extends.

  2. Donna

    Holy crap on a cracker that’s cool!!!:D:O

  3. This enormous filament has been tracked by solar aficionados for some time; here I show two different time steps from today (the lower, later one identical to Phil’s) and link to further imagery of it.

  4. Simply incredible! Some wild action on the Sun today. (Well this weekend too…that prominence started peeking around the Sun’s limb on Friday, I think.)

  5. LL

    Way awesome!

    Just FYI, the image embedded in the post doesn’t show up for me (though it does if I click the empty spot).

  6. chris j

    thanks, after a quick trip through the gimp to fix the size, I have a great new wall paper.

  7. NAW

    Wow, watching the “movie” of it at the site is really great. I guess I have just found yet another website to burn a lot of time at.

  8. AliCali

    If you imagine eyes where the two bright spots are in the upper left, and imagine a mouth at the big line where the prominence seems to come from, I see an angled face with something coming out of its mouth. It is Ra, the Sun God, giving us the Rasberry!

  9. Phil, you forgot the best part – solar pareidolia! Looks like a huge face spitting into the wind. Or at least I like to think so.

  10. quarksparrow

    Sun, you are scary.

    But awesome.

  11. Michel

    Is this part of the sun waking up again?

  12. Apprentice

    The images probably come from here: ftp://umbra.nascom.nasa.gov/pub/images/current/

    Apart from the amazing scar-like structure. I found pretty interesting that dark spot on the NE part of the Sun. It appears very dark in other pictures, like this:
    ftp://umbra.nascom.nasa.gov/pub/images/current/latest_aia_335.gif
    and
    ftp://umbra.nascom.nasa.gov/pub/images/current/latest_aia_193.gif

    What causes that? Why so dark in so many different pictures?

  13. CWorthington

    Ooo.. getting a handle on the sun!

  14. Deze beelden en tekst fascineren me nog evenveel als toen mijn HBS-broer (Jaap) me rond 1940 vertelde over zijn Cosmologie-lessen. Hoeveel tsunamis hebben we (wie zijn ‘we’?) sindsdien over ons heen gekregen, maar de interesse is gebleven. ;-)

  15. Jesper

    Is this an unusually large prominence, i.e. something that happens only once in so many years, or do prominences as big as this one happen more often?

  16. I said Holy, followed by a bad word when I saw that picture. That is a huge prominence!

  17. The Beer

    @ Carey: Don’t you mean Sol-y ??

  18. Ari

    Just curious but what happens when a planet passes through or near something like this. I can get a handle on size (and there are certainly planets that orbit host stars at these distances) but what kind of energy (or energy density) are we talking about? Bacon?

  19. Thanks for the terrific images, the links, and your report. I send visitors to your stories often. Keep up the great observationating.

  20. Ufo

    I want to understand the size of that firey monster a bit better. How big would our Earth be compared to a single dot in the “17:49:57 UT” in the bottom of the picture?

    Great pic, thanks!

  21. Robert E

    @21 — double check Phil’s article above: “Mind you, on the scale of this image, the entire Earth would be about 5 pixels in size. “

  22. Evan

    Off topic:

    What do you think of the claim that solar cycles are causing climate change?

  23. And in spite of BARELY beginning to understand the sun and its cycles, let’s make wild-ass guesses about the climate based on glomming together bad data from disparate sources.

  24. Dave Mosher @9 – I see the prominence as a small-ish figure squatting (or hunkering) with the Sun resting on its knees and and apparently inflating the Sun with its mouth. The left arm is held above its head to steady the Sun, and the right holds it to keep it from deflating and blowing away.

  25. yo

    Somebody wrote “MAIL” over the sun, and added an underline!

  26. rolderwithmoreinsurance

    enfilamenate? does that mean make more effiminate? I thought prominences were gender neutral? Oh, maybe it has something to do with solar filaments, but those aren’t prominences exactly, since they’re prominences seen in projection against the solar disk.

  27. Douglas Troy

    That is beautiful. Looks like an ocean wave, but, you know, one that could vaporize you, your beach towel and raft instantly.

  28. saffff

    Looks just like the globe in my toy plasma ball, must be a plasma receiver. With out the dark cold holes and flares, but my globe doesn’t have that much power.

  29. Ufo

    In post #22 Robert E wrote: “@21 — double check Phil’s article above: “Mind you, on the scale of this image, the entire Earth would be about 5 pixels in size.”

    Hi Robert, thanks, but that was the reason I asked in the first place. I don’t understand anything about pixels, is it the size of this dot: . or something smaller, sorry but I have no idea. That’s why I gave a reference to the same picture and the time code. Thanks anyway.

    Ufo

  30. Jake

    @33- Yes, the dots of the colon in the time stamp are 5 pixels wide.

  31. Nigel Depledge

    Evan (23) said:

    Off topic:

    What do you think of the claim that solar cycles are causing climate change?

    The same as always – that it’s a claim with no evidence to back it up.

    Meanwhile, back on-topic…

    Holy frak! That’s a huge prominence, and an awesome pic!

    The BA said:

    But in the ultraviolet, the magnetic energy is more easily seen, making the spots look bright.

    Wait, what?

    Surely the camera doesn’t actually see the magnetic energy? I thought, since it was recording in the UV, it would “see” plasma that emits in the UV. I assume that, from the wavelengths emitted by the plasma that we see, the presence of intense magnetic activity is reliably inferred, but I don’t buy that the camera sees magnetic energy. Is it, or not really?

  32. Nigel Depledge

    Ufo (33) said:

    Hi Robert, thanks, but that was the reason I asked in the first place. I don’t understand anything about pixels, is it the size of this dot: . or something smaller, sorry but I have no idea. That’s why I gave a reference to the same picture and the time code. Thanks anyway.

    “Pixel” is a contraction of “picture element”.

    Basically, pictures are assembled on the screen as many many tiny dots – we have to look pretty closely to see them individually, but the aggregate effect is that we see a picture. You may notice that digital cameras are often advertised with x number of megapixels – that’s how many elements there are in the camera’s sensor, and it (approximately) correlates with the best resolution the camera can achieve.

    If you click to view the full size image, the software you use to view it will usually (depending on the software and what OS you use) show the picture at the size of your screen (or of the window in which you view it), so you can see the whole picture. When displayed like this, some pixels are omitted or averaged together so that your monitor displays a smaller version of the image. However, most forms of this software will also allow you to click somewhere to view the image at full size. In that case, each pixel of the image is represented by one pixel on your monitor. The actual size at which the image appears depends on several things, but among them is the resolution of your monitor (e.g. you may have it set to 1024 x 768 or something similar – the numbers are the number of pixels along the two axes of your monitor).

    Because the pixels on the monitor are usually too small to easily see individually, a single dot on the screen (such as a full stop) is often represented by 4 pixels in a 2 x 2 array (which is why, if you look really closely at a full stop, it looks a bit square-ish).

    Generally, Phil takes a smaller version of a full-size image to make it fit the width of the blog, and here he describes the Earth as 5 pixels wide “in this image”. So, to get an idea of the size of the Earth in the image, imagine two-and-a-half full stops across the middle of the sun – that’s (roughly) the width of the Earth in relation to the size of the sun.

    Hope this helps.

  33. Nigel Depledge

    ElZarcho (24) said:

    And in spite of BARELY beginning to understand the sun and its cycles,

    Sez you. Any data to back up that claim?

    let’s make wild-ass guesses about the climate based on glomming together bad data from disparate sources.

    Actually, this is a plain lie.

    Climate science is based on good data from many sources, with conclusions that have been carefully and painstakingly drawn based only on what the data support. If you wish to make a rational critique of any particular climatology paper, the appropriate primary literature is the correct place to do that. If you cannot be bothered to do this, then remain silent on the topic. That way, people might occasionally suspect that you know more than you really do, as opposed to now, when you have shown us that you possess anti-knowledge.

  34. Anon

    The whole solar system is warming up…gee I wonder why

  35. sadpanda
  36. maroongrad

    It was very cool, the info about the UV was interesting. But what shot this past cool into amazingly fabulous was the use of “Embiggen.”

    Mahvelous. :) Thanks for sharing!

  37. Andrew

    To put it another way, the diameter of the Sun is about 110 times the diameter of the Earth. The reduced-size image at the top of Phil’s post is 620 by 620 pixels. Given it does not go right up to the edges, the Sun covers somewhat less than 320,000 of the image’s 384,440 pixels. Earth would have a diameter of about 5 pixels at that scale, and cover an area of about 20 pixels. You can click through to the full 2048 by 2048 image. The earth would be about 18 pixels across, and its disc would cover about 270 pixels.

    Here is a (rather rough) image – http://www.nasa.gov/images/content/105298main_sun-comparison_lg.jpg

  38. Rob Sol

    The red photo is actually a Hydrogen Alpha composition, with filters tuned to allow only visible light at the frequency 656.28 nm. This is characteristic of all HA shots – It is not a composite false color or an ultraviolet picture as erroneously reported in the column. You can actually see this filament with a basic solar telescope for about $500.

  39. john

    whats the scoop on the objects that where seen around the sun was it fake or what?

  40. Phil Plait

    Actually, robsol (44), it *is* UV. It was from the 304 nm filter on SDO. If you click the pic you’ll see the caption.

  41. Hamradioguy

    I’m just happy to see a couple of sunspots- bodes well for us radio hamsters. If we ever get to see the sun anytime soon here in the Northeast I will dig out the telescope and solar filter and have a look for myself.

  42. Messier Tidy Upper

    Awesome image. :-)

    Can we take it that the latest Solar cycle is advancing nicely then? :-)

    @18. Ari Says:

    Just curious but what happens when a planet passes through or near something like this. I can get a handle on size (and there are certainly planets that orbit host stars at these distances) but what kind of energy (or energy density) are we talking about? Bacon?

    Good question. The stellar and planetary magnetosphere’s (magnetic fields) would interact and, yes, I suspect the planet would likely have even more energy and heat dumped on it than usual but to be honest I’m not sure.

    There was something possibly relevant here that I read ages ago about Tau Bootis and its Hot Jupiter interacting – I’ll have to do search & see.

    It is amazing that Hot Jupiters can survive being so close to stellar flares, CME’s etc .. although I think they are slowly getting evapourated away and their outer layers get boiled off them streaming away like cometary tails and possibly eventually reducing the planet’s to stripped down molten (plasma?) cores over aeons of time.

  43. Messier Tidy Upper

    @23. Evan :

    Off topic: What do you think of the claim that solar cycles are causing climate change?

    I think the BA has it right here :

    http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/badastronomy/2007/04/29/is-global-warming-solar-induced/

    & there’s more resources incl. links and a NASA Earth science YouTube videoclip here :

    http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/badastronomy/2010/02/24/nasa-talks-global-warming/

    Again via this (Bad Astronomy) blog.

    Its also worth checking out this :

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_Sf_UIQYc20&p=029130BFDC78FA33

    great entertaining & informative Youtube video presentation overview of that idea.

    Hope this helps. :-)

  44. Messier Tidy Upper

    @39. Anon Says:

    The whole solar system is warming up…gee I wonder why

    Actually, that’s a popular misconception that it turns out is NOT really the case – see :

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BSXgiml5UwM&p=029130BFDC78FA33

    & also here :

    http://www.skepticalscience.com/global-warming-other-planets-solar-system.htm

    plus check out this page :

    http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/badastronomy/2010/10/26/climate-change-the-evidence/

    from this blog which has plenty of other links incl. one to NASA’s climate change page providing the evidence for climate change and esp. Human Caused Global Overheating.

  45. Messier Tidy Upper

    There was something possibly relevant here that I read ages ago about Tau Bootis and its Hot Jupiter interacting – I’ll have to do search & see.

    Okay, a quick vist to Wikipedia :

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tau_Bo%C3%B6tis

    & from there onwards reveals that Tau Bootis and its HotJove seem to be in an interesting relationship :

    http://www.space.com/scienceastronomy/050523_star_tide.html

    Where the exoplanet wags the star! 8)

    Tau Bootis~wise, this excellent page gives lots more too :

    http://www.extrasolar.net/planettour.asp?StarCatID=normal&PlanetID=19

    Including illustrations and finderchart – it’s across from Arcturus and next to Muphrid (otherwise known as Eta Bootis – a metal-rich G0 yellow sub-giant just 37 ly off) in the sky.

    @48. Hamradioguy Says:

    I’m just happy to see a couple of sunspots- bodes well for us radio hamsters.

    Bodes well for aurorae (australis & borealis alike) too methinks! :-)

  46. “Embiggened?” Really? How does a fake word, a joke from an animated TV series, find it’s way into a science article? Don’t you have an editor?

  47. Nigel Depledge

    @ Soqueesh (54) -
    “Embiggened” is a perfectly cromulent word. What’s your beef?

    In case you are new here, you should know that the BA is a master of neologisms. Although some of the neologisms are evil.

  48. un malpaso

    [...] being over 400,000 miles long, Discovery’s Bad Astronomy blog reassures us [...]

    Does that mean this blog is now over 400,000 miles long?!? That’s got to be the biggest comments page I have ever seen…. :P

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