Gorgeous flowing plasma fountain erupts from the Sun

By Phil Plait | October 10, 2011 7:00 am

On September 24th, Active Region 1302 — a cluster of enormous sunspots — popped off an X-class flare, a powerful event that caused some beautiful aurorae here on Earth.

But the flares don’t have to be so powerful to generate ethereal, magnificent beauty. A day after that biggish event, those sunspots burped again, this time with a lower-power M-class flare. Now, when I say "low power", it’s not like a firecracker or a car backfiring: the total energy released would still dwarf the combined nuclear might of every country on Earth! By a lot. But for the Sun, that’s considered to be "meh".

Still, if you get a good view of it, well, it’s still gorgeous. The Solar Dynamics Observatory, orbiting the Earth, has what is essentially a box seat to the Sun, and got this footage of the flare:

[Make sure to set it to at least 720p and make it full screen!]

The flare and prominence — the arcing tower of material — lasted about three hours, and this video shows it at a rate of one frame every minute of real time. The flare pops, and then the fountain erupts from the surface. This gas is ionized (stripped of at least one electron), so it’s highly influenced by the magnetic field of the Sun as well as by its crushing gravity. The material flows up, forming that amazing sheet of roiling gas, reaches the top of its arc, and falls back down.

Well, it doesn’t fall so much as flow, guided by the enormous strength of the Sun’s magnetic field lines. Mind you, eyeballing from the size of the Sun’s disk, I’d venture this tower of gas is well over 100,000 km (60,000 miles) long! There are millions of tons of gas in it as well, moving dozens of times faster than a rifle bullet. The energies involved are mind-crushing.

Also, if you look to the upper left, you’ll see a smaller prominence loop caught in the act of evolving, with material apparently floating over the solar surface, then flowing back down as well.

I wrote a description of how sunspots produce flares and (sometimes) coronal mass ejections, and about prominences before. NASA has a nice guide to solar flare classification, too.

Video credit: NASA/SDO/Helioviewer.org.


Related posts:

- The Sun lets loose a HUGE explosion
- For your viewing pleasure: Active Region 1302
- Solar storm tracked all the way from the Sun to Earth
- Awesome X2-class solar flare caught by SDO

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Astronomy, Cool stuff, Pretty pictures

Comments (13)

  1. Jason

    Very cool and a reminder that our sun is a fairly active star. Glad we have a nice magnetic field to protect us, and thick atmosphere to soak up most everything else unpleasant

  2. Patrick

    That is insanely awesome

  3. Worlebird

    I love how the material in flares moves. It’s so counter-intuitive. You expect the material to move ballistically, curving up and then back down with gravity, but instead it shoots up, and then seems to hover for a moment before curving back down in weird twisting paths. I know that it’s due to magnetic field lines, but it doesn’t make it any less brain twisting to see it happen.

  4. Chris

    Sometimes I wonder how youtube does its advertising. Why would this video bring up an ad to watch the Rosie Show on OWN?

  5. Caleb

    @Chris

    “Why would this video bring up an ad to watch the Rosie Show on OWN?”

    Mass.

    I kid… I kid.

  6. Messier Tidy Upper

    Neat clip. :-)

    Looks almost like a living creature – a plasma whale living in the Sun and doing one of those whale aerial flips before diving back into its home! ;-)

    (NOT saying this is a serious theory just imagined whimsy.)

  7. @1. Jason : Very cool and a reminder that our sun is a fairly active star.

    Well, yes, although these things are very much relative.

    Compared to this flaring neutron star :

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yLVubS7g3-o

    Or the Red dwarf that Roared, EV Lacertae :

    http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/badastronomy/2008/05/19/the-red-dwarf-that-roared/

    Or Mira, the pulsating red giant or perhaps most dramatically of all the Luminous Blue Variable Eta Carinae which breifly became the second brightest in our skies before fading into unaided eye invisibility :

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3agymlfFXYY&feature=related

    (Click on my name for Kaler’s page on it) among others, our Sun is wa-aay out-classed.

    Which as you note is a great news for us! 8)

  8. Wzrd1

    I’m trying to figure out the recapture of the gas. I was actually expecting it to form an arch and flow down the field line to the other pole, where the field line reconnected.
    It NEARLY flowed to the reconnection point, but failed. Perhaps the reconnection at the dark line wasn’t fully established and still competing for the strongest field strength?
    It’s looking like the field was broken by a tangle close to the surface where it wasn’t radiant, rather than the stereotypical mid “dome” disconnection, which might more correspond to a CME event.
    As in same phenomena, but on a different scale (flare vs CME).

  9. Messier Tidy Upper

    @1. Jason : “Very cool and a reminder that our sun is a fairly active star.”

    Yes indeed. :-)

    But not as active as some red dwarf flare stars as Kaler notes :

    “Instead of being a local phenomena as it [flares - ed] is in the Sun, the magnetic fields and flares involve the whole star. Clearly life on an orbiting planet would be terrifying if not impossible. Imagine M [red] dwarf bathing on the beach and having your star suddenly – with no warning at all – become 10 times brighter.”

    Source : pages 30-31, “The Faintest Stars” article by James Kaler in ‘Astronomy’ magazine, August 1991.

    Honestly can you imagine what that’d be like for Earth – or imagine what something just twice or thrice as bright as our Sun would look like? :-o

    (Maybe I’m easily impressed but trying to picture that is something that always blows me away! ;-) )

    As well as flare stars, there are Mira variables, Cepheids, long period iregular variables like Betelguese and so many other varieties that are far more extreme than our own relatively really constant – but very, very, slightly variable daytime star.

    Incidentally, our Sun itself was more variable in the past when it went through it’s T-Tauri “nebular variable” stage and will be much more variable in the distant future when it evolves into a Mira type red giant.

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