The Sun's still blasting out flares… BIG ones

By Phil Plait | January 28, 2012 6:35 am

Active Region 1402, the same sunspot cluster that blew out a solar flare and caused all the ruckus last week, is still being feisty: just before rotating to the other side of the Sun, it erupted in an intense, pulsing solar flare that actually was much more powerful than the one that happened last Monday. This was an X2 class flare, making it more than twice as energetic as Monday’s.

Happily, the flares were on the edge of the Sun’s disk, so the bulk of the radiation was aimed away from the Earth, but it still makes for some pretty dramatic footage. Using I created a video showing about 2.3 hours of the Sun as seen by NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory. It shows the Sun in the extreme ultraviolet (at a wavelength of 19.3 nanometers if you wanna get geeky), where magnetic activity is seen easily. Watch the upper right corner of our friendly star… and make sure you make it HD and full screen.

Isn’t that awesome? The flare got so bright the automatic software dimmed the rest of the Sun to compensate, giving you an idea of just how powerful these flares can be: at peak, they can give off several percent of the entire Sun’s brightness in one small spot! I love how you can see it pulsing over the course of several minutes; I counted 10 separate flaring events. Each pulse was from a snapping of the Sun’s magnetic field lines, a cascading series created when the first one went off and triggered the rest. And each released mind-numbing amounts of energy — tens of thousands of times our entire planet’s nuclear arsenal combined. Also, you can see the arcing loop around the flare site; that’s plasma trapped in a field line. It erupts outward, but bear in mind the scale: it’s several hundred thousand kilometers across, roughly the distance from the Earth to the Moon, and it blasts away from the Sun like the devil himself is after it.

Like I said: awesome.

You might have noticed the flare looked like an elongated diamond. That’s not real! It’s a digital artifact; what’s happening is the flare got so bright it overwhelmed the pixels in the SDO detector. These collect light like a bucket collects rain. If too much light hits them, they overflow into the neighboring pixel. This flare was so bright it flooded the detector, and created that effect — technically called blooming.

We haven’t seen much of an effect from this flare — just a minor radiation storm that’s at the lowest end of the scale, nothing to worry about — since it wasn’t pointed at us. Had this been in the center of the Sun’s disk, well. That might’ve given me my chance to finally see some aurorae from Colorado. Not this time, though, and sunspots generally don’t last long enough to make it all the way around the Sun again (which takes about 30 days to spin once). But the Sun has a lot of magnetic energy still up its sleeve, and we’ll be seeing more flares like this as we approach the peak of the cycle in 2013 and 2014.

Credit: NASA/SDO/

Related posts:

The Sun aims a storm right at Earth: expect aurorae tonight!
Awesome X2-class solar flare caught by SDO
Gorgeous flowing plasma fountain erupts from the Sun
NASA’s guide to solar flares

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Astronomy, Cool stuff

Comments (24)

  1. The sun is reallly cool!!

  2. David C.

    If the Dark / Middle Ages Religious Leaders had seen this, they too may have thoughts of the Devil inhabiting the Sun, and revised their direction for where Hades was. Now what would they have made of Heaven after THAT!! ;0
    Great post Phil!! One more point, imagine a few centuries from now, when Humanity settles the Solar System, and we begin harnessing that energy in ways we can’t even begin to imagine right now; they will look back at us as we do the Neolithic Farmers 😉

  3. Jeff W.

    If SDO is studying the Sun, why is it in orbit around the Earth, and not the Sun? Wouldn’t the Earth block the Sun half the time, when the spacecraft is above the dark-side of the Earth? Or does a geosynchronous orbit mean that it’s always going to be above the lit-side of Earth?

  4. Marina

    Great timing. We were overcast for the last set of aurorae, clear after they were over, with forecasts of rain and clouds for the next four days. We’ll clear up just in time to miss the show.

  5. Dys

    This is absolutely not an alarmist question, it comes purely from curiosity about the physics involved.

    How powerful a flare would it take to overwhelm the earth’s magnetosphere and start actually stripping atmosphere? Is that even possible, and how big a star would it take?

  6. Brian Schlosser

    Check out the prominences in that region this morning!

  7. Taiga

    That is awesome! So’s this and I thought you would appreciate it: Lego Man In Space!

  8. corebela

    I would love to know the answer to Dys’ question as well. Also since you said “Happily, the flares were on the edge of the Sun’s disk, so the bulk of the radiation was aimed away from the Earth” Does this mean it would have been unfortunate for it to be pointing at earth? Why?

  9. Crux Australis

    Please, oh please, tell me this will still be pumping protons into our atmosphere when I’m in Northern Europe!

  10. I tell my video customers that the CCD overflow artifact is like filling an ice cube tray and the cube/pixel you’re pouring water into overflows to adjacent cubes.
    I want to show my girls some aurorae! Come on, Sol, is that the best ya got? Wimp…

  11. zeke

    @9 corebela

    Here are the scales used to describe the expected impact of what Sol throws at Earth every sunspot cycle.

    Last sunspot cycle had an X40+ event, fortunately it was on the Sun’s limb, much like this one but at least 20x stronger.


  12. sunspotter

    Speaking of all the activity last week, Alister Chapman captured some amazing video (not time lapse stills) of the Aurora Borealis and just posted an amazing video to his blog. check it out here:

    (it’s not me… I just thought it was kinda relevant to this post)

  13. @1. ErisArticWolf Says: The sun is reallly cool!!

    Compared to *really* hot and massive stars sure! Our yellow dwarf Sun is a cool 6,000 degrees or so versus 42, 000 degrees kelvin for the O5 type blue supergiant Naos (Zeta Puppis) for instance. 😉

  14. Brad

    I don’t understand “magnetic energy”. What is that? Isn’t it electrical energy being released in the flare? They are the same thing of course, in different forms.

    Flash, flash, flash…10 times. Seems almost like lightning. On a colossal solar scale, of course.

    Also: What do you think would happen if the shot a big X-flare level CME right dead centre at Earth? Specifically, is the SOHO sat designed to handle something like that? Or would it get totally fried?

  15. Joseph G

    One thing I’ve always wondered about these bloomin’ flare pics: these satellites are made specifically to look at the sun, right? And presumably a flare is one of the more interesting phenomena that you’d want to be able to investigate, right? So why are these detectors all calibrated in such a way that flares cause massive blooming? If it’s not possible to capture such a high dynamic range, wouldn’t they want to include some kind of flare-specific sensor? A FlareCam?

  16. corebela

    @14 zeke
    Does anyone know what would happen if the x40+ was poinitng at us? Considering the scale you gave me only goes to x20.

  17. Mark Holman

    I recalled on CB radio the magnetic release of energy, typical stuff, and I hold a ham license, and a Born Again Christian, and I am not a off the wall religious person, religious PPL can not perform a simple math formula or understand OHM’s law unless they fried their brain on drugs then they are babbling nonsense and wearing rags maybe.

  18. Matthew Ota

    The Sun is an attractive object to observe by amateur skywatchers with the proper equipment. With a white light solar filter attached securely to the objective end of your telescope, you can observe the sunspots in the photosphere. With a hydrogen alpha solar telescope, you can observe prominences and filaments in the chromosphere.

    This year amateur solar astronomy is going to rise in popularity due to the annular solar eclipse on May 20th and the transit of Venus on June 5th.


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