The Sun lets loose a HUGE explosion

By Phil Plait | June 7, 2011 10:21 am

Early this morning, the Sun erupted with an explosion I can only describe as ginormous. We’re in no danger from it, but the size and scope of this thing are simply spectacular. Here’s a video I put together of the event using Helioviewer, a public-domain solar viewer:

Yowza! [Make sure to set the resolution to at least 720p, and make it full screen to get the full effect.]

What you’re seeing here is a solar flare (an enormous explosion of pent-up magnetic energy) coupled with a prominence (a physical eruption of gas from the surface). This event blasted something like a billion tons of material away from the Sun. Note the size of it, too: while it started from a small region on the Sun’s surface, it quickly expanded into a plume easily as big as the Sun itself! I’d estimate its size at well over a million kilometers across. It looks like most of the material fell back down to the Sun’s surface; that’s common, though sometimes such an event manages to blast the material completely away into space.

The above video shows the Sun in the ultraviolet (304 Angstroms for those playing at home, quite a bit bluer than what the eye can naturally see) and is colored orange to make it easy to see.

The folks at Helioviewer put together a close-up looking at even higher energy; it’s still UV but at 171 Angstroms: [UPDATE: Drat. That video has been taken down. Sorry about that, folks.]

Again, may I say, yowza! The material is silhouetted against the Sun’s brighter surface, making it appear dark. I think the expanding circle you can see is a shock wave pummeling the Sun’s surface, but it might be a line-of-sight effect of the edge of the explosion, like seeing a soap bubble’s bright edge.

You can read more about this event at the very cool Geeked on Goddard blog. The energy of the event was colossal. A good flare can release up to 10% of the Sun’s total energy, the equivalent of billions of nuclear bombs exploding. What’s funny to me is that this wasn’t all that big a flare; it was rated as a class M2.5, far lower in energy than the vast explosions from the Sun back in February.

Again, the good news is that we’re not in any danger from this; it wasn’t aimed our way (most of these types of events miss us). But as I’ve said before, the solar cycle is heating up and we can expect to see more incredible events from our friendly neighborhood star in the coming years.

Credit: NASA/SDO, animation made using Helioviewer. [Note: I had originally used the wrong units when indicating the wavelength of light seen in the videos — nanometers instead of Angstroms — so I’ve corrected that and changed the text a bit to make it clearer.]

Related posts:

Incredible solar flare video
kaBLAM! Footage of the X class solar flare
Sunspot 1158 ain’t done yet
The birth of a sunspot cluster
Followup: Sunspot group’s loopy magnetism
First earthward-heading solar flare of the cycle
Arc of dissent
The Sun blasts out a flare and a huge filament


Comments (114)

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  1. WJM

    He-he-he. The Sun lit a fart.

  2. Chris P

    Looks like the sun burst a zit 😀

  3. Bob

    Get that star some Pepto!

  4. moregrey

    Wowser! In the 2nd video, after the initial blast, are we seeing the flashes of ejected material falling back and impacting the surface? Amazing!

  5. Fax Paladin

    What fascinates me what looks like splash points where the material falls back onto the sun’s surface…

  6. Tom

    The main event on Helio is here;

    Amazing. Even over 5 minutes theses distances are staggering

  7. Brown

    Better out than in, I always say.

  8. Tony

    Stars are F*&*#ing cool!

  9. Carey

    @Tony #8: For certain definitions of cool :)

  10. Timmy

    What would be the effect if something like that were aimed at Earth?

  11. ELMO

    I think it’s a KAMEHAMEHA! waahhaha :)

  12. megamoze

    Spectacular! Is the video sped up? If so, how long does something like take to play out in real time?

  13. that is a Star Trek scale star explosion. Very cool imagery. :)

  14. Derek

    OMG!!! WAIT!! WAIT!!! So what you’re saying is that that solar eruption was the cause of the earthquake in Missouri early this morning also!?!?!?! So more earthquakes are coming? Camping was right!!!*

    *heavy use of sarcasm*


  15. @megamoze: The first video has tiny timestamps in the lower left. The video covers roughly a 10 to 12 hour period. (I’m not very good at freeze-framing YouTube videos.)

  16. Wow… Of all of the “burst from the sun” videos I’ve seen (mostly here) this is the first one that “feels” as violent as they are.

  17. jearley

    We were using a Coronado PST H-alpha telescope yesterday, and we could see 9 prominences at about 1:30 or so Pacific Time. The Sun was looking very active…

  18. Alexander

    I can’t imagine the kind of energy required to launch all those tons of material high up into the space against the Sun’s gravity.

    It’s extraordinary.

    Is there a time scale for the video, was it an event occurring in minutes or hours?

  19. RwFlynn

    Here’s another angle on the spectacular plume ya’ll might appreciate. Helioviewer put this together also.

    Anyone notice how there’s a lot more noise in the camera after the event, even though it wasn’t directed towards us? Should we expect some aurora out of this?

  20. Matt

    How much mass was ejected? Any reasonably accurate estimates?

  21. Julie

    Phil, I have a couple of questions, if you’ve time to address them.

    1) Do events like this ever bathe Mercury in stellar material, or, as close in as it is, it’s still too far away for that to happen?

    2) What would a flare like this do to MESSENGER if it and Mercury happened to be in the path?


  22. John Nouveaux

    It’d be wicked cool to see, somewhere in the video frame, a sphere the size of Earth superimposed to give scale to the eruption. :)

  23. Regner Trampedach

    John Nouveaux @ 25: I get a Solar diameter of 300 pixels on my screen, which with a 1 to 109.12 ratio of Earth to Sun diameters, results in a 2.75 pixel diameter for the Earth, in that (the top, 304nm) movie clip… It’s a bit on the dinky side of things, compared to the Sun :-)

  24. superkuh

    You are incorrect about the wavelength of the ultraviolet light the AIA instruments use. It’s 30.4 nm, not 304 nm, and 17.1 nm not 171 nm. The numbers are given in angstroms, not nanometers.

    You might also be interested to note that there was an impulsive high energy proton event associated with this flare. Only some 30 minutes after the flare peak the proton flux >30MeV increased dramatically in L1 and geosynchronous orbit. This would put a lower limit of the speed at a weakly relativistic 0.3c.

    I wrote a bit about this on my reddit post from this morning, links to the data sources are included:

  25. Cynthia

    That was huge wow. Amazing

  26. ophu

    Fuel stop gone awry?

  27. Early this morning, the Sun erupted with an explosion I can only describe as ginormous.

    Hmm … how about gargantuan? Brobdingnagian? Titanic? Colossal? Vast? Huge or “Huuuuuuggee” as we might pronounce it? 😉

    Astronomically large? 😉

    I like my adjectives, I do. Spectacular in any case! :-)

  28. For those who’d like an explanation of “Brobdingnagian” see :

    Great word – along with “Lilliputian” for it’s antonym :

    – from a great book by a very smart satirist.

    Jonathan Swift also correctly “predicted” the moons of Mars in ‘Guillivers Travels’ although his reasoning there was a tad unscientific – since Jupiter was then known as having four moons and Earth one it seemed reasonable to “give” Mars two – and since we hadn’t seen them already they had to be very small. Which, of course, Phobos and Deimos are.

    Aptly then, several craters on Mars’ moon Phobos are named after Lilliputians. Not sure if the Brobdingnagians got any astronomical places named after them. But the word “Yahoo” also coined by Swift :

    has become a lot more familiar for some reason today! 😉

  29. Chris
  30. Gary Ansorge

    Ah, perhaps it was an impact with a primordial black hole,,,

    Dang, that’s some impressive videography.

    Gary 7

  31. Mike

    Y’know, it was my birthday day (happy 42 to me), and here I was feeling sorry for myself that I didn’t have a cake with candles on it. Ok, this makes up for it, about a quadrillion times over!

  32. eli

    Can someone post a link? All I’m getting are big blank spaces where the videos should be. Thanks.

  33. @ ^ Mike : Happy birthday then! :-)


    The BA : “Early this morning, the Sun erupted with an explosion I can only describe as ginormous.” Hmm … how about gargantuan? Brobdingnagian? Titanic? Colossal? Vast? Huge or “Huuuuuuggee” as we might pronounce it?

    Also how about Leviathanesque, Cyclopedean* and Behemothic!? 😉

    Alternatively Elephantine, Rhodean (from the Colossous of Rhodes statute) and plain old SuperMassive?

    PS. Did you know there’s actually another word for thesauarus – onomasticon – I kid you not!

    * Trivia for today : In the original Greek mythology, the Cyclops were giants as well as one-eyed. Perhaps the most famous of all the Cyclops the one in The Odyssey was actually named Polyphemous or so I gather. :-)

  34. And I was going to blame my cell phone provider for bad reception. This goes to show that, after all, we’re all so tiny compared to the universe! To hell with my cell phone, this is much more interesting.

  35. Quad

    He’s broken free from his prision! Finally!

  36. Robin S.

    I wish my eyes were sensitive wavelengths as short as 304 A. What a different world it would seem in the spectrum between 304A and 700nm.

  37. BIgSoph

    The violence of this explosion is further proof of the destructiveness of the Republican agenda against Obama
    When will people realize that going green, becoming carbon neutral and becoming a better more ecologically conscious person is the only way to prevent these disasters.
    If we all renew our pledges to serve our president, we can stop these, save the planet and preserve our social welfare system.

  38. CR

    I suppose fans of that awful movie “Knowing” are thinking that this is justification for the climactic event at the end of said movie. I would love to have read a review of that movie here (remember when Phil had time to do movie reviews?), especially if it would have prevented me from wasting my time watching the movie.

    Anyway, these real videos of the sun’s latest blast are stunning! I actually gasped at the first one, even though I had just read what to expect… actually seeing it happen was just amazing!

  39. Jordan

    UV at 304 angstroms just below the visible spectrum? unit check?

  40. Melf_Himself

    304 Angstroms is a *lot* bluer than what the eye can naturally see (order of magnitude, you know).

  41. hurrr im a hoers

    Hey, non flash for those of us with crappy machines?

  42. Jobst

    Come on .. we all have to fart sometime.

  43. SchwarzerFuerst

    I think, it’s like a safety ventil, sometimes, when the pressure is too high it opens…

  44. indium

    300 Angstroms or 30 nm is more than just a bit bluer than what the eye can see (generally about 400-750 nm). It would be classed as “extreme” UV and is pretty close to x-rays.

  45. That’s incredible.

    Now, if only we could harness the power of the Sun, and use it for good instead of just pretty pictures. Maybe some form of energy capture device that takes the EM radiation and converts it into useful electricity. Does such a thing exist, and if not why not? 😉

  46. Nigel Depledge

    Julie (24) said:

    Do events like this ever bathe Mercury in stellar material, or, as close in as it is, it’s still too far away for that to happen?

    Mercury is permanently bathed in stellar material, because it receives the highest flux of solar wind in the system.

    A coronal mass ejection (CME) would certainly increase the flux of solar wind hitting Mercury.

  47. GMGJ

    ginormous! If I could only comprehend the scale. Seriously, when words and pictures and comparisons do not convey the magnitude. .. Today the sun farted out a blast the size of Jupiter hot enough to vaporize rock and steel in 1 milli micro second.

  48. For those asking about the wavelength, I left the phrase “a bit bluer” in because I was trying to use a little humor to underscore the phrase, but I see it doesn’t translate well in text. I changed that to say “quite a bit bluer” to be more clear.

    FWIW I’ve done research using UV cameras so I’m familiar with the wavelengths involved. The use of nanometers originally was a hiccup in my brain.Happens sometimes.

  49. Girino

    And apparently the eruption will mean good aurora watching tonight:

    Wish I lived further north. I’ve never see the aurora.

  50. Whats interesting is that as you watch the material fall back down towards the surface (yeah, I know it’s not really a “surface”, whatever), it doesn’t follow a normal, sub-orbital trajectory. The material obviously has some magnetic moment that gets pushed around by the Sun’s twisted magnetic field.

  51. Orlin Dimitrov

    At : moregrey
    Amazing, indeed !

  52. Jones

    Phil, I see human (male) face there on the surface of the sun in full screen 720p version! Right next to upper bright area, left side of the bright spot. Seriously, has anyone else spotted it?

  53. Giorgis

    “A good flare can release up to 10% of the Sun’s total energy”

    Ammm that sounds pretty bad, give me ten of these and the sun is a gonner :-)
    I am sure that means 10% of the emitted energy at any one time

  54. JOHNWARD20

    So; We’re not the only place suffering “Global Warming”!

  55. is this why my cell phone sucks for the past 48 hrs?

  56. conor

    In the second video it looks like there is some kind of event occuring in the air right before and above the explosion. Is that related — like a trigger or something? Maybe gasses igniting? I am not a scientist, just curious and impressed.

  57. that is a Star Trek scale star explosion. Very cool imagery.

  58. EUNICE

    I’ve watched Nicholas Cage movie “Knowing” i hope that will not happen…but my instincts telling me it will… I have faith in god…he will not let the suns explosions reach us…

  59. Yes, finally we are all going to be burnt alive.

    Oh no wait, thats a nightmare…. ^^

  60. It would be really dangerous if the sun explodes. Two explosions of the sun hyper sonic and super sonic.. Hyperconic is super dangerous. The sun will like “eat us!” EARTH will go to the sun’s atmosphere.

  61. redisforever

    Wow, that’s really cool, and I noticed a shockwave coming out from it, for about 3-4 frames. Really powerful looking.


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