Seriously jaw-dropping picture of the Sun

By Phil Plait | March 8, 2011 7:52 am

Need your slice of awesome today? Then check out this truly astonishing picture of a detached prominence off the limb of the Sun:

Holy wow! Click to ensolarnate. And I mean it: you want to see the bigger version of this.

This picture was taken by Alan Friedman, who is no stranger to this blog: his picture of the boiling Sun last year was hugely popular, and so amazing I featured it as one of my top pictures of 2010.

And with this he’s done it again… and maybe even topped it.

Alan used a filter that lets through only a very narrow wavelength of light emitted by hydrogen (called Hα for those of you keeping track at home), so this tracks the activity of gas on the solar surface. He also inverts the image of the solar disk (makes it a negative) to increase contrast. Somehow this adds a three-dimensional quality to the picture, and reveals an amazing amount of texture. I swear I had a rug in my bedroom growing up that was this texture (though somewhat cooler and less burny).

The scene-stealer is that detached prominence off to the left. That’s the leftover material ejected from the Sun by an erupting sunspot (you can see other sunspots in the picture as well). The gas is ionized — a plasma — and so it’s affected by magnetic fields. The material follows the magnetic field of the Sun in the explosion, lifting it off the surface and into space. Sometimes it falls back, and sometimes it leaves the Sun entirely. In this case, Alan caught some of the material at what looks like the top of its trajectory.

The beauty of this picture belies its violence and sheer magnitude: the mass of material in a prominence can easily top 10 billion tons! As for size, see that dark elongated sunspot near the base of the prominence, just to the right of the bigger, speckly one? That spot is roughly twice the size of the Earth.


Making this even more amazing, these images are taken with a 90mm telescope — that’s a lens not even 4 inches across! Superior optics, a good mount, and a steady hand can do wonders.

You really need to go and see the rest of Alan’s photography at his site, Averted Imagination. His photos of the skies are surpassingly beautiful.

Related posts:

The boiling, erupting Sun
The Top 14 Astronomy Pictures of 2010
Incredible solar flare video
Arc of dissent

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Astronomy, Cool stuff, Pretty pictures

Comments (93)

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  1. Sam H

    That prominence looks exactly like cirrus clouds hanging over the sun to me (and they are clouds, in a way). Sweet that it’s made of superhot plasma and twice the size of Earth!!! 😮

    “Not only is the universe stranger than we can imagine, it is stranger than we can imagine.”

  2. Tavi Greiner

    I have a question. Trying to wrap my mind around the immense size of the Sun and the fact that it’s all gas, yet appears as a solid sphere. Is the gas so dense that we could actually walk (or almost walk) on its “surface” – maybe something like ooey gooey molten rock? (Pretend we have super suits to protect us from the heat.)

  3. Craig

    Ooh! Look. A contrail on the sun! :-)

  4. Given our evolution on a planet where the light source is above, the sunspot below the prominence makes me think of a shadow.

    Besides, it’s obviously a fake. There are no stars in the image. :-)

  5. @Tavi Greiner,

    The Sun is plasma, not gas. That said, I think the Sun’s intense magnetic fields and gravity are what give it the illusion of being solid. In reality, if you stepped onto the surface (assuming you didn’t melt or burst into flames), you’d probably sink down into the plasma. It wouldn’t be a very fun… or long lasting trip, that’s for sure!

  6. That’s certainly a much nicer photo of the Sun than the one in today’s Brewster Rockit comic:

    Maybe it’s the pareidolia talking, but I have a bad feeling about this.

  7. kevbo


    No stars? I see a big one filling up the botton right part of the picture… 😉

    (heh heh heh…”massive floater”)

  8. Brett

    That is without a doubt the most awe-inspiring picture of the sun that I have ever seen. It really causes the mind to stagger and then soar. Thank you for posting that. And thanks for the link….I’m gonna head there now! Keep up the great work!

  9. Alan’s work is always super-solarific. :)
    He got a lot of publicity with his image from last October…hopefully this one will generate the same!

  10. CB

    I think what makes the sun look “solid” is that it’s emitting crazy amounts of light, so we can’t see through it as we would expect with a gas or cool plasma. But this plasma is very, very hot.

    I agree that in pictures like this, where there’s enough of a filter put on the sun’s light that it doesn’t look as ridiculously luminous as it really is, that it kinda looks more like how a solid orange ball lit by some other light source would look. But keep in mind that even those “dark” sun spots are also glowing brightly, and only appear dark compared to the rest of the sun!

  11. Rosie M.

    In reply to Ken B; there is at least one star in the image.

  12. Digital Atheist

    @1 Sam H

    I was about to make the very same comment about cirrus clouds… it was the first thing I noticed.

    On a more personal note, any image of Sol is a great one to me, whether it is something like this, or playing around with my telescope and looking at sun spots projected on a sheet of paper (note to all amateur astronomers.. do NOT accidently forget and leave a color filter in… the heat WILL pop it.. very very quickly.)

    Keep these pictures coming Phil… The sheer magnitued of the infitesimally small speck of space our system occupies in the universe is still soooooooo magnificently large I know i’ll never be able to comprehend it all. :-)

  13. kevbo:


    No stars? I see a big one filling up the botton right part of the picture… 😉

    And since when would the facts get in the way of a serious “moon hoaxer”?

    (And, given the audience here, I knew someone would pick up on that.)

  14. truely inspiring image .

  15. Neeneko

    I think I just discovered what I want to do with my soon to be re-purposed camera….

    Too much light pollution for astrophotgraphy where I am… but the sun…. hard to have too much light for that.

  16. Evan Harper

    I didn’t know what “10 billion tons” meant, really, so here’s an analogy: 10 Gt is pretty close to the weight of a lead cube with 1 km sides.

    Given the size of the cloud, that’s actually an incredibly small mass, ain’t it? Making a calculation for the cloud’s volume that would be overdignified by calling it “back-of-the-envelope,” that’s about 1 gram for every cube of plasma 400 m on a side.

    Space is weird.

  17. Joseph G

    Totally off-topic, but I’m FINALLY catching an episode of Bad Universe! Woohoo! And it’s awesome!

    You the man, Phil! :)
    Edit: And getting to fly with the Thunderbirds! Lucky bastard you! 😛

  18. Joseph G

    -Also, now I know how Haleakala is pronounced. I was imagining it all wrong!

    Amazing picture. I really like the colors that the filter appears to bring out.

    @ Sam H: That prominence looks exactly like cirrus clouds hanging over the sun to me (and they are clouds, in a way). Sweet that it’s made of superhot plasma and twice the size of Earth!!!
    “Not only is the universe stranger than we can imagine, it is stranger than we can imagine.”

    That’s what I was thinking too. Looks like nice picnic weather on the sun :)

  19. Absolutely amazing image! Brilliant!

  20. Erik

    @3 – Surely you meant chemtrail.

    >= )

  21. David Pesta

    @KenB: You may not have have noticed this, but there are no stars visible when you walk outside in the middle of the day on earth. I know, I know…that might also be fake.

  22. Looks almost like a painting. Love the “cloud”. Looks like rain. lol

  23. KC

    IIRC if you “stepped” onto the Sun, you would sink almost halfway to the core before you reach anything as dense as water. Brings new meaning to the term “hot tub”!

  24. BillZBub

    Is there a video version of this? If not, I demand that Alan create one immediately.

  25. Beelzebud

    If I didn’t read the explanation for how this photo was taken, I would have bet money it was a painting. Thanks for turning me on to this great new addition to my wallpaper rotation.

  26. JAFO

    Doesn’t the bigger picture involve how we keep it from burning out? Or how long it will last? It’s getting hotter and hotter….

  27. Keith Bowden

    I think I had carpet made from that same material as your rug, Phil. :)

  28. Great photo! Bu the way, i taught him everything he knows!! :) Hi Alan

  29. Ensolarnate
  30. A steady hand, indeed! This is the kind of work that vibration consultants admire (and hope to enable).

  31. Yeebok Shu'in

    Wow, that’s one heck of an image.

  32. Anon.

    This will sound very offensive but if you look at the sun upclose, the swirly circles, don’t you think it looks like some man’s hairy belly? Just implying something. BUT! It is still an awesome picture especially since I would expect a big red fireball with flares shooting around the fireball.

  33. Tavi, walk on the sun?

    Apart from the heat, you forgot to mention to ignore the gravity too to allow you to walk on the sun (your ‘is it solid enough’ Q).. A google search reports the gravity is 28 times that of Earth, so you’d be crushed dead and pretty flat very quickly – weighing 60kg here means weighing nearly 1.7tonnes there. Your bones can’t cope :-).

    That strong gravity also compresses all the gas in the sun; it only doesn’t collapse in on itself because of the light and other energy caused by the fusion (initiated by the gravity) that expands outwards.

    The sun is a third as dense as the earth on average (very rough estimate, from reading via google that sun is 333000 times more massive than Earth and from memory that its million times more volumous).

  34. Glissade

    It looks so organic. Like the super enlarged surface of a melon or something. Anyway I think I’m going to use ensolarnate as a user name somewhere! :)

  35. Khalil

    Phil, you always ensure I have a cool desktop pic.

    Awesome imagery in both words and pictures.

  36. MSKati

    @KenB There is a star in the picture… in fact, it takes up most of it.

  37. Lance the Astronomer

    Hey guys, this is crap. The Bad Astronomy context of this image should be “astronomy hoaxes we let get through.” First, for those that are not astronomers, the H-alpha filter is in a narrow red band, and the various colors in this are not correct. The sky would be pure black except for energetic emissions, and those would not be the white wispy clouds, but dark red/orange arcs following strong magnetic fields. Also, the limb (edge) appears as diffuse white, but is a deep red when looking at actual photographs since the brightest colors are near the closest surface. Then, the resolution of this image can only be achieved with a spacecraft telescope. Details of the Sun’s surface using a 90 mm telescope through the Earth’s atmosphere are very, very coarse. This is not an amateur photo, it is a mosaic, if that. Finally, the sun spots might be real, but since this is the quietest solar activity period this late in the cycle for some 100 years, these spots are most likely from another period. Can’t identify these spots, but I can spot bad astronomy.

  38. DanEiten

    New wallpaper on desktop looks very cool ty

  39. Thank you so much for drawing attention to this. Just knowing that a photo like this was taken with a 90mm telescope is incredibly inspiring – you don’t have to be an international space agency to capture an incredible view of the cosmos after all!

  40. Durga

    This is really awesome, no one would have imaged to see the sun with so much of details in it. It is really a breath taking picture of the sun

  41. cacarr

    That’s close to the coolest thing that’s ever ended up on my retinas. Wow.

  42. cacarr

    We need more great pictures of more things in our solar system. And video. We need Martian webcams of really high quality. It behooves us to add the extra weight/spend the extra money for good cameras on probes and robots.

    Great images excite the passions (especially in youngsters) and make it all the more _real_ for the general public = more money for such projects, eventually.

  43. JoeRod

    My stomach literally just dropped at the sheer magnitude of this picture and our insignificance in the world….or it could be the taco bell.

  44. Some of the sun spots are as big or maybe bigger than the earth. It’s just so hard to imagine

  45. JBone

    Just a sun fart, big deal.

  46. Rachel

    Wow, nerds really don’t know how to spot a joke or suspend logic for the sake of entertainment for even a second, do they?

    Love this photo, and the other one as well, which I saw a few months ago after I came across this magnificent blog. Completely captivating and wonderful.

    But seriously guys, c’mon. Learn to spot a joke without it having to beat you over the head.

  47. Lanie

    This is a weird pic cause it kinda looks like a pregnant women’s stomach!!! Lol


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