Incredible solar flare video

By Phil Plait | March 2, 2011 12:00 pm

Over the weekend the Sun let go with a relatively decent-sized flare and prominence: a towering ejection of matter from its surface. At the time, I couldn’t find an embeddable version of the video, but happily Goddard Space Flight Center (my old stomping ground!) put one up on Flickr. So feast your eyes on this incredible video of the event as seen by NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory on February 24, 2011:

In the immortal words of noted solar astrophysicist Christopher Walken: wowee wow wow!

[Edited to add: I should’ve been more clear in my post title that this is a flare and a prominence, and in fact the motion of the material in the video is the prominence.]

Details of the science of what you’re seeing are expounded upon in a previous post on solar flares. The sunspot that triggered this was on the edge of the Sun, so weren’t in any danger (and wouldn’t have been even had it been aimed at us; this was a class M 3.6 flare, well below what the Sun is capable of). This video shows the Sun in the ultraviolet, where magnetic activity reveals itself well. You can see the material racing up the magnetic field of the sunspot and erupting into space. I was particularly impressed with the shock wave of material you can see moving toward the bottom at the very beginning of the event. And note this isn’t a single, short impulse; energy keeps getting pumped into the flare in a series of magnificent episodes.

Watch the material itself; some clearly leaves the Sun forever, while some falls back to the surface. The scale of this is almost beyond comprehension… the entire Earth would be a smallish dot on this scale.

Over the next couple of years we can expect the Sun’s activity to increase, and just in time we have SDO to take high-resolution images of it. We’ll be getting even more video like this, and I can guarantee it’ll get even more spectacular as time goes on.

Related posts:

KABLAM! Footage of the X-class solar flare
Sunspot 1158 ain’t done yet
First earthward-heading solar flare of the cycle
A huge looping prominence on the Sun

Credit: NASA/GSFC/SDO. Tip’ o the welder’s goggles to Matt Lovelace for pointing me to the GSFC Flickr page.

MORE ABOUT: prominence, SDO, solar flare

Comments (37)

  1. Every time I see the word ultraviolet associated with solar flares, my brain substitutes ultraviolent!

  2. Erik

    Yes, Phil, I totally made a ‘Fwoosh’ sound when I watched this the first time. =P

    And Larian – I had the exact opposite problem when I saw ‘A Clockwork Orange’ for the first time – my mind kept insisting I’d heard the main character say ‘a bit of the old ultraviolets.’

  3. alfaniner

    Fascinating. Horrifying.

  4. Timmy

    I have questions:
    How does the plasma escape the Sun’s enormous gravity?
    Looking at the time code on that video, it looks like they sped it up a lot and the plasma actually moves much slower, though if you take scale into account, maybe it is still moving darn fast.

    According to Wikipedia the escape velocity of the sun is 617.7km/s, so is that how fast this stuff was moving or was it being carried by the magnetic field?

    BTW, my maths tell me that at 617.5km/sec it would take over 67 hours to get from the Sun to Earth, and over 10 minutes to get from the Earth to the Moon.

    I’m no astrophysisist (I can’t even spell it) but that is darn fast!

  5. Robert E

    According to the Flickr page, the vid covers a 90-minute period, w. one frame taken every 24 seconds.

  6. Here is a photo with Earth ~roughly~ to scale (within a factor of two!) next to the eruption, plus a close-up version of the NASA video. It’s a little blurry, but you can see more of the flow of plasma within the magnetic arcade.

  7. Joseph G

    Amazing! Holy ding dang cracker catballs!
    At first it looks almost like a volcanic eruption, but then as you watch you can see the plasma moving along magnetic field lines in the opposite sort of directions that you’d expect. Wow. My mind is officially blown (yet again).

    [obligatory snark] I wish the dang player controls didn’t cover up the timestamp on the bottom.[/obligatory snark]
    Whenever I see these solar animations, I like to know the timescales involved. At first I was wondering why the sun didn’t appear to be rotating, but then I realized that the timescale is relatively short. The initial “squirt” looks like it could cover a couple million miles in only a few minutes!
    For some reason, I always pictured prominences as happening much more slowly.

  8. Sam

    FYI Timmy that is one frame every 24 seconds, so yeah it is sped up – but it’s still going very fast! I think the timescale gives it an earth-like sense of movement. If played in real time it would be harder to appreciate the motion of the plasma.

    I find it fascinating too to look at not only the material that manages to leave the sun, but the stuff that is ejected, but then rains back down on the sun. Like tattered ribbons in the wind they flutter down as you could imagine on earth, but then the sun’s magnetic field channels it down in labyrinthine paths to the photosphere. The prominence seems to suck material back into it, seemingly reversing time itself!

    Incredible video Phil, thanks! As I understand magnetic reconnection is still a debated topic, is there any progress on where these things get their ‘oomph’?

  9. Jasini

    Looks like the sun sprang a leak!

  10. Eugene

    That is some FAST moving plasma right there.

  11. Christopher Kandrat

    Thats the biggest one ive seen in awhile. I hope the magnetic field can handle these becoming increased.

  12. If you ever need anything quick, just let Little SDO or me know. We try to get these sort of wonderful solar events onto social media (Facebook mostly) as quickly as we can. This way it feels like “almost real-time”.

    Thanks for all the support and it’s always a pleasure, Phil!

    Camilla SDO & Team

  13. Karen

    My 7 year old son’s opinion of the video: “Awesome”. He wants to know why we always draw the sun as a flat yellow ball in the sky when it actually looks like “an orange sorta 3-D looking burning ball of fire with lots of movement, which looks like it has lava exploding out of the it”.

  14. Let’s remember that the diameter of the sun is a little over 4.6 light-seconds… that clip is sped up a lot, if it was real-time it would probably be moving faster than light.

    Hard to get your brain around how big it is…

  15. Ben

    Why does the sun always show up in these pics and videos as orange? Isn’t it white?

  16. Eric

    I noticed that much of the plasma that returned to the sun landed back in the exact same place the prominence started. Does the increased magnetic activity cause this? Can the activity increase the gravity at that spot?

  17. WOW!!!!!!! Over a 90-minute period? Wow. Truly awe-inspiring. Thanks for posting it! :)

  18. I watched this and suddenly realized I could not begin to grasp how utterly huge that was.

  19. Jeffersonian

    So, somebody explain to me how tall the tower would be, in miles (say, the majority of the matter)?

  20. Grand Lunar

    “this was a class M 3.6 flare, well below what the Sun is capable of”

    Considering just how large this flare was Phil, this statement of yours gives one pause; what would a truly massive flare be like?

    Let’s hope it’s pointed elsewhere when it does happen!

  21. Grand Lunar

    @15. Ben

    “Why does the sun always show up in these pics and videos as orange? Isn’t it white?”

    This is an ultraviolet image, not a visible light one.

  22. Tim

    Thank you, couldn’t find a video of event either.

  23. Messier Tidy Upper

    Meanwhile solar astrophysics~wise check out this piece of news :

    Seems we now know why the start of this solar cycle was so prolonged and had so many worryingly spotless days. 8)

  24. Adam English
  25. Messier Tidy Upper

    Great video. Stunning. The scale and spectacle just boggles the mind. :-)

    @15. Ben : Why does the sun always show up in these pics and videos as orange? Isn’t it white?

    Well that depends.

    We see & traditionally depict it as a superluminous golden orb as seen from the Earth’s surface.

    In space without our atmosphere and the consequent Rayleigh scattering we’d see it as blindingly white.

    At sunset and sunrise our Sun’s light is further diffused creating an orange and even reddish apparent colouration.

    Seen in through a Hydrogen alpha filter (I can vouch for this personally) our Sun is amazingly red.

    Spectroscopically speaking, our Sun is classified as a yellow dwarf. (G2 V meaning near the top of – or “early” – spectral class G main sequence to be precise.)

    However, the actual wavelength it puts out most of its light is, I gather *green*, we just don’t see it that way for its other light!

    Finally sunspots are dark black – or at least they are in contrast with the rest of the solar surface – if we took one off the sun it would be a dazzling white! 😉

  26. Messier Tidy Upper

    @15. Ben – Some hopefully handy links for you here.

    For more about Rayleigh scattering :

    For the green-ness but not-green ness of the Sun see :

    Warm it up to 6000 Kelvin (about the temperature of the Sun, 5700 C or 10,000 F) and it peaks in the blue-green. Heat it up more, and the peaks moves into the blue, or even toward shorter wavelengths. In fact, the hottest stars put out most of their light in the ultraviolet, at shorter wavelengths than we can see with our eyes. Now wait a sec (again)… if the Sun peaks in the blue-green, why doesn’t it look blue-green?
    Ah, this is the key question! It’s because it might peak in the blue-green, but it still emits light at other colors.

    There’ also this superb follow-up BA blog article :

    on green stars or their lack – with the possible exception of Zubeneschmali (Beta Librae), Antares B, (Alpha Scorpii B) the famous red supergiants companion and a couple of others which was posted on this blog on August 28th, 2008 1:00 PM.

  27. Thameron

    Whenever you post videos like this you should start with the ‘Danger to Earth’ rating, kind of like those colored forest fire danger signs or the terrorist warning levels which are now permanently on orange. Otherwise people will naturally assume that our planet is on the way to being fried. Human beings have no innate sense of scale when it comes to stellar phenomenon.

    “class M 3.6 flare” 3.6 out of a possible…? Is this a linear scale or logarithmic like the Richter Scale? Alone as it is that designation is meaningless.

    Of course if your intent is to frighten people then by all means go wild with the exclamations without context and throw in the occasional OMFFSM.

  28. Messier Tidy Upper

    @ ^ Thameron : Oh come on. Given Phil’s record in debunking such scares & taking the calmest, most rational & reasonable approach to things, I think that last part is going a bit far. I really don’t think the BA was trying to ramp this up into any sort of “OMG! The sky’s falling! We’re Doooomed!!1!” type thing at all.

    I think he was just marvelling at some awe-inspiring video of an astronomically spectacular event and conveying that sense of the wonderful (& mega-scale) to us. :-)

  29. Murff

    Wish it had sound :)

  30. Neal

    Plasma’s non-local behavior never fails to boggle my mind. At the end, it looks like the Sun is just slurping that prominence back up.

  31. @Jeffersonian ,

    Using gogblog’s photo of the flare and the Earth and using the super-scientific method known as “putting my finger up to the screen and estimating size” I get about 16 Earths tall. Of course, the photo comparing it with the Earth cuts off some of the flare, so probably 20 or so Earths tall. And, as Phil said, that’s not even the biggest the Sun is capable of!

  32. Keith Bowden

    What “wild… exclamations”? “Incredible Solar Flare Video”. Oh, yeah, I’m scared. Or maybe not. I for one welcome our new video overlords.

    Seriously, wtf?

  33. Tom (H. Type)

    This is really incredible.
    Is it true that the sun converts 5 MILLION tons of hydrogen to energy every second…really!

  34. Neal

    Yes! The sun puts out 4E26 W, so every second it has to lose 4 billion kg = 4 million tons. Since the mass loss H to He is about 2%, as I recall, the sun must be fusing about 200 billion kg every second.

    No worries, though, 4 billion kg is only about 0.0000000000000000002 % of the sun’s mass. To lose all 2E30 kg of its mass, the sun would have to continuously put out 4E26 W for another 20 trillion years.

  35. Ben

    @ Messier Tidy Upper

    Hey thanks for the links, I’ll get into these tonight. I’m still kinda new at the astronomy thing….so many questions.

  36. Messier Tidy Upper

    @^ Ben : No worries – my pleasure. :-)


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