STEREO sees an ethereal solar blast

By Phil Plait | April 18, 2011 5:25 pm

On March 19, 2010, the Sun’s magnetic field erupted, launching a billion tons of plasma into space in an event called a coronal mass ejection. This particular CME headed right for Earth, but had no effect on us (except perhaps sparking some aurorae). It was captured from the side by NASA’s STEREO spacecraft — actually, two spacecraft, labeled A and B, which are far ahead and behind the Earth in its orbit around the Sun. A pretty nifty video of the STEREO A observations of this CME has just been released:

[Note: I suggest upping the resolution to 1080, and then making this full screen.]

The Sun is off to the right, and you can see the loops and glow from the plasma as it left the Sun at high speed — about 350 km/sec (210 miles/sec). That’s fast enough to reach us here on Earth in about 5 days. And yup, those are stars you’re seeing in the background. At the distance to the CME, the scale of the video is about 48 million km (30 million miles) across.

On its way to Earth, this CME plowed past a satellite called ACE, designed to study subatomic particles ejected by the Sun (as well as from galactic and extragalactic sources, too). This means that CMEs like this one can be studied as they erupt, have their internal structures traced as they expand, and then studied as they impact us as well. As more are observed, we’ll learn about how these giant eruptions are formed, and what impact they have on Earth.

The goal too is to understand them well enough to be able to predict their impact on us. A big CME can damage satellites and cause power grid outages on Earth, which can result in billions of dollars in economic loss. If they can be accurately predicted, it can potentially save us a lot of grief.

Video credit: Anthony Williams / NASA / Richard Harrison


Related posts:

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The whole Sun catalog
The Sun blasts out a flare and a huge filament
The Sun rises again

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Astronomy, Pretty pictures

Comments (5)

  1. Messier Tidy Upper

    A big CME can damage satellites and cause power grid outages on Earth, which can result in billions of dollars in economic loss.

    Or worse, it can bring Death from the Skies! ;-)

    Don’t I recall reading something about that in a certain book, what was the title again, written by a Dr P-something? ;-)

  2. RwFlynn

    I have a question. If we were able to predict CMEs what precautions could we to take to prevent interference? Or is planning around the interference all that can be done?

  3. Crudely Wrott

    I hope we continue to deploy solar observing probes.

    Like most of what science has taught us, our knowledge of our star is limited. Like the rest, it’s full of tantalizing clues. In pursuit of where those clues lead we keep inventing better eyes.

    That’s why it’s important to keep looking, to keep paying attention. We are guaranteed to learn. Probably the best vicious cycle ever!

    It’s nice that astronomy has played such a seminal part in the development of science. Think of it. Doing science by simply looking up on clear nights. Perhaps in good company and talking about the view and all its parts and the way it moves. Talk about the intrinsic nature of science! Anyone can do it if they look and remember and can count the days.

    Then we got orbiting telescopes. WWHHAAAA HOOOOOOoooooo!!!

    Thanks again, Phil, for the wonder and the ponder. Not to mention your inside connection to so much cool stuff.

  4. Messier Tidy Upper

    By apt co-incidence, the latest astronomy magazine I’ve just bought an hour or so ago today(Australian Sky & Telescope, May-June issue) has a good article on the 1859 August 28th-29th “Perfect Solar Superstorm” event and the implications if it were to happen again today by Daniel Baker and James Green. 8)

    It also featured an article on the Solar Dynamics Observatory and its latest findings and noted in the news section that there’s been a flurry of mini-comets grazing (& being destroyed by) our daytime star too. Guess similar items will be in the US version too, maybe?

    @2. RwFlynn Says:

    I have a question. If we were able to predict CMEs what precautions could we to take to prevent interference? Or is planning around the interference all that can be done?

    I’m not sure – possibly turning off or down electrical systems and re-orientating satellites etc .. differently to minimise impacts if we’re expecting the surge? But that’s just a guess.

    What I would do is think of trying to observe some nice aurorae -when the 1859 storm hit (source – the article noted above) apparently aurorae were visible all the way to the equator – & their energy powered the telegraph for a while! :-) 8)

  5. Messier Tidy Upper

    @2. RwFlynn :

    See :

    http://answers.yahoo.com/question/index?qid=20101217050115AAjaD8D

    &

    http://videos.howstuffworks.com/howstuffworks/4670-could-a-solar-flare-destroy-the-earth-video.htm

    &

    http://space.about.com/od/sunsol/a/History_Of_Solar_Flares.htm

    Hope these help and are interesting. 8)

    Couldn’t really seem to find too much on them- or how we can deal better with them anyhow I’m afraid.

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