The delicate tendrils of a solar dragon

By Phil Plait | September 2, 2011 7:00 am

Alan Friedman is an "amateur" astronomer who takes astonishing images of the Sun. You may remember his picture of our star that was so cool I chose it as one of my Top 14 Pictures of 2010.

He’s still snapping away, and on August 17th took this lovely picture of a prominence erupting from the Sun’s surface:

[Click to enfilamentate.]

Isn’t that gorgeous? A prominence is a towering arc of material lifted off the Sun’s surface by intense magnetic fields. To give you an idea of how strong the magnetic forces are, a prominence can have a mass upwards of a hundred billion tons, and be cranked up thousands of kilometers off the Sun’s surface… despite the crushing gravity of nearly 30 times that of Earth’s!

And some people call the Sun "average". Ha!

Alan takes these images with a pretty nice ‘scope equipped with a filter that blocks all the light from the Sun except for a narrow slice of color preferentially emitted by warm hydrogen. He then inverts the image of the solar disk (but not anything on the limb or outside it), which is an old astronomy trick to make contrast more obvious to the eye.

This image is part of a much larger one showing much more of the solar edge, including another magnificent prominence. Amusingly (to me at least), when I saw the picture above, my first thought is that it looked like a sitting dragon, facing to the right, sniffing a fish floating in front of it (and given that I’m at Dragon*Con right now, I love this imagery even more). Then I realized it also looks like a dragon facing to the left, head down on the Sun’s edge, like it’s ready to pounce! I’d suggest staying out of its way; after all, this dragon would be about 150,000 km long: well over 10 times the size of the Earth.

Do you see it as a dragon too? Funny how once our minds latch onto a picture like that, it’s hard to not see it that way!

Related posts:

A fiery angel erupts from the Sun
Seriously jaw-dropping picture of the Sun
The boiling, erupting Sun
The Sun lets loose a HUGE explosion

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Astronomy, Cool stuff, Pretty pictures

Comments (26)

  1. I see the left-facing dragon, but the right-facing one is clearly a quadrapedal mammal (like a grizzly bear or a sabre-tooth cat or something). :)

    Anyway it’s an awesome image.

  2. Amazing photo. A couple nights ago I showed my son one of these photos of the sun. He’s in 3rd grade and is very interested in science (and math). I explained, the best I could to his 3rd grade mind, about what the Sun is made up of plasma contained in complex magnetic fields. He was amazed by the photos and I think he even understood, to a degree, my explanation about what it was made up of. (Even if he did ask if someone could “break” the Sun using a big enough magnet.)

    Then he wanted to see photos of Jupiter and Pluto which led to a photo comparing their relative sizes. At one point, I put the laptop computer down with the size comparison photo on the screen. I pointed to a 3 foot tall stack of blocks that his 4 year old brother had built. I told him that if these were the planets, then the sun would be about as tall as the stack of blocks. Meanwhile, Earth was a tiny sphere onscreen.

    I love these moments when my son and I discuss science.

  3. Messier Tidy Upper

    Looks like a giant space prawn or something to me! 😉

    The colours here seem a bit .. odd .. to me too. Space looks too light purple and it all seems a little muted in colour.

    Good photo though all the same – thanks. :-)

    And some people call the Sun “average”. Ha!

    Our Sun is actually in the top 5% of all stars for mass, luminosity and more.

    90% of stars are on the core Hydrogen-fusing main sequence (incl. our Sun) with the other 10% being white dwarfs and less than 1% being giants, supergiants and hypergiants. Of the main sequence stars 80% are M spectral type red dwarfs – the most common and least massive stars which are so numerous they make up almost all our stellar neighbours – notable exceptions being the Alpha Centauri duo, Sirius & Procyon – but are so dim not a single one can be seen with the unaided human eye. Another 15% or so are orange dwarfs which are a bit dimmer and less massive than our Sun a handful of nearby examples such as Epsilon Eridani, Epsilon Indi and 61 Cygni. Our yellow dwarf Sun is at class G2 fairly bright for a G type dwarf star – brighter and larger than most such as Tau Ceti, Alpha Mensae and Groombridge 1830.

    Only 4% or so of stars belong to spectral types F & A and less than 1% are the brightest, most massive and bluest types B & O.

    Average our Daytime Star is NOT! :-)

    Of course, the much rarer but brighter blue O & B type dwarfs, Sirian & Procyonese stars and giants and supergiants do dominate our night skies but still .. 😉

  4. Messier Tidy Upper

    Our yellow dwarf Sun is at class G2 fairly bright for a G type dwarf star – brighter, brighter and larger than most such yellow dwarfs as Tau Ceti, Alpha Mensae and Groombridge 1830.

    I guess most readers here will be familiar enough with Tau Ceti (spectral class G8 V for comparison, our Sun is G2 V – V simply meaning ‘main sequence dwarf’ and numbers running G0 to G9 from most massive and hottest to least massive and faintest) But for those who might not have heard of & want more info on Groombridge 1830 – a nearby high proper motion or apparently fast-moving star – see :

    Plus see :

    for more about Alpha Mensae – the faintest of the brightest “Alpha” stars. 😉

    Whilst a quick look at this listing of 721 very to mildly prominent stars arranged by spectral class :

    Via Kaler’s superb ‘Stars’ website shows how the majority of unaided eye stars are of the well above average – but exceptionally rare – spectral classes O, B, A & F – and supergiants, giants and sub-giants.

  5. OtherRob

    After looking for a dragon, I can see the left-facing one. I still don’t see the right-facing one that Phil originally saw.

  6. Mark

    I confess I was thinking “dragon” when I looked at the prominence, but… *blush* I couldn’t help but see a pony.

    I don’t think that’s a dragon, I think that’s Celestia, guiding the sun on its journey. And Celestia is 20% cooler than a dragon.

  7. @ ^ Mark : Celestia is a pretty neat planetarium software program too! 😉

    (Click my name for the wiki-page.)

  8. Ian

    This is a great image.

    Just out of interest, Fr Angelo Secchi SJ (1818-78) studied solar prominences and corona during solar eclipses and was the first to confirm that these phenomena did indeed belong to the Sun and were not artefacts of a solar eclipse. He also discovered solar spicules. Indeed the SECCHI instrument onboard the STEREO probes is named after him.

    If Fr Secchi were alive today I’m sure he’d be really impressed with Alan’s work.

  9. Nigel Depledge

    I saw a dragon, but I must have been influenced to think “dragon” by the post’s title.

  10. Artie

    Seeing more of a right facing Sabre Toothed Tiger.

  11. GT

    But of course the Sun has little influence on the climate… /sarc

  12. SkyGazer

    Stunning pics!
    Just WOW.

  13. Trebuchet

    Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon!

  14. VinceRN

    Awesome picture. I see both dragons, I saw the right facing one and the fish at first glance, then the left facing after I read people saw it.

    It is an impressive picture, partially due to real skill, but mostly due to the fact that this guy can drop almost $20,000 on a system to take pictures of the sun. Of course the mount, which is almost half the cost, is also used for night time astronomy so that mitigates the cost somewhat. Once you can get a set up like that you mostly just need patience and practice to get pictures like this. I would guess, based on the size of the rings, the quality of these items, and the fact that few amateurs even at my level buy only one telescope, that this guy is hundreds of thousands of dollars into his hobby.

    I’m just jealous, as my wife isn’t really happy about the few thousand I’ve spend on telescopes over the years.

  15. Robin Byron

    I see a stalking T-Rex to the left and two bison, one standing one laying down, to the right.

  16. Keith Bowden

    Lucy Van Pelt: Aren’t the clouds beautiful? They look like big balls of cotton. I could just lie here all day and watch them drift by. If you use your imagination, you can see lots of things in the cloud’s formations. What do you think you see, Linus?
    Linus Van Pelt: Well, those clouds up there look to me look like the map of the British Honduras on the Caribbean.
    [points up]
    Linus Van Pelt: That cloud up there looks a little like the profile of Thomas Eakins, the famous painter and sculptor. And that group of clouds over there…
    Linus Van Pelt: …gives me the impression of the Stoning of Stephen. I can see the Apostle Paul standing there to one side.
    Lucy Van Pelt: Uh huh. That’s very good. What do you see in the clouds, Charlie Brown?
    Charlie Brown: Well… I was going to say I saw a duckie and a horsie, but I changed my mind.

  17. Regner Trampedach

    Nice post, Phil – Awesome picture Alan! Good on Ya.
    TechyDad @ 3: Your story warms my heart :-) I have a 5yr daughter and have similar moments with her (less advanced stages yet.. Just getting to general relativity next week ). Nitpick: It is gravity that confines the plasma of stars. Magnetic fields just messes up the atmosphere above the visible surface, and makes some sun-/star-spots in the surface and sometimes they run solar-/stellar-activity cycles. The surface I talk about is, of course, not solid – it is just a sharp drop in temperature and density which results in most of the light we see to be coming from a 130km thin layer called the photosphere. That layer is only 1/5500 of the radius of the sun – that is why it looks so sharp in pictures.
    Cheers, Regner

  18. mike burkhart

    Oh NO its GODZILLA !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  19. @Regner Trampedach,

    True. I believe I was trying to explain a “sun explosion” video to him when I got into the complex magnetic fields. Meanwhile, my 4 year old was insisting that the sun was on fire. 😉

    My other recent science talk with my 8 year old involved the immune system since he was about to get the flu shot. I compared it to giving a bunch of police a wanted poster of a bad guy. Without the wanted poster (vaccine), the police (white blood cells) might not realize that the bad guy (germ/virus) is a bad guy and let him by. By the time they realize, he’d have multiplied into a thousand bad guys and would be hard to take down. Instead, they see the bad guy, remember the wanted poster, and take him down quickly. Of course, my son instantly called the bad guys Doctor Octopus & Venom and the white blood cells Spider-Man. That only made me prouder of him. :-)

  20. Sam

    Sweet picture and scope. I have a TeleVue TV-85 and while it is a fine apo refractor in its own right, I can’t but help lusting after the Astro-Physics setup that Alan has!

  21. alfaniner

    Looks like the top of my head after a little too much time in 95+ degree heat.

  22. Messier Tidy Upper

    @ 11. GT : But of course the Sun has little influence on the climate… /sarc

    It used to – before human climate forcing by greenhouse gas emisions took over. Nowdays not so much.

    Watch :

    & this

    (5 minute 50 sec in esp. in that second one.)

    Plus read :

    which observes that :

    .. after 1975, temperatures rose while solar activity showed little to no long-term trend. This led the study to conclude, “…during these last 30 years the solar total irradiance, solar UV irradiance and cosmic ray flux has not shown any significant secular trend, so that at least this most recent warming episode must have another source.” In fact, a number of independent measurements of solar activity indicate the sun has shown a slight cooling trend since 1960, over the same period that global temperatures have been warming. Over the last 35 years of global warming, sun and climate have been moving in opposite directions. An analysis of solar trends concluded that the sun has actually contributed a slight cooling influence in recent decades (Lockwood 2008). [Italics original.]

    Incidentally, that’s the second most popular – and long debunked Human Induced Rapid Global Overheating (HIRGO) myth according to the Skeptical Science site. I would recomend checking there (among other places) before posting any supposed “argument” against the consensus that HIRGO is real and a serious issue because otherwise you risk looking fairly foolish.

    Or just stop and think for a second – do you really think climatologists would be so thick that they’d overlook the possible influence of our Sun on our climate?

  23. I always hear the music from “Life on Earth” when I see images like this.
    Having looked at the video again though I realise how much solar photography has improved since the 1970s!

  24. Otto

    A beast facing right, bottom sitting, up on front legs. As he blows a wisp of smoke at his child sitting up on hind quarters and balancing with his tail. Father and Sun.

  25. DrFlimmer

    At first I also saw the right facing saber toothed tiger catching its prey. Only later I recognized the left facing dragon.


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