Mesmerizing, towering loops of solar magnetism

By Phil Plait | January 29, 2012 7:02 am

I know I’ve been writing about the Sun quite a bit lately, but I have a followup to yesterday’s cool video of the big solar flare… and you’re gonna like it.

I was fooling around with, watching the flare in different wavelengths of light detected by NASA’s Solar Dynamics observatory, when I switched to 17.1 nanometers — in the far ultraviolet. At that wavelength, the glowing plasma that flows along the Sun’s magnetic field lines is very bright. The images were so beautiful, so incredible, I made a video animation of them, covering the time range of January 26, 2012 at midnight to January 28 at noon (UTC), which includes the huge X2 solar flare that erupted on the 27th. The video shows huge loops of magnetism on the Sun’s surface, glowing plasma flowing along them… and then 48 seconds in the flare changes everything. Watch:

Holy wow! Isn’t that awesome? Make sure you watch in in HD, and make it full screen to get the whole effect.

What you’re seeing is Active Region 1402, a sunspot cluster. This is a tangled collection of magnetic field lines piercing the surface of the Sun. Like a bar magnet, there are two poles to each loop, a north and a south pole. The gas on the surface of the Sun is so hot it has electrons stripped off, so it’s strongly affected by the intense magnetic field, and flows along these towering loops, which can reach heights of 300,000 km (180,000 miles) in this region.

The loops are tied to the plasma, too, and this material is twisting and roiling as it rises and sinks. The lines get tangled, and like a short circuit they can snap and reconnect. When they do, they release vast amounts of energy as a solar flare. In the video you can see the messy, disorganized loops getting more and more tangled up. Then KABLAM! The flare itself is not visible because it happened too quickly to be seen on this timescale (see the video yesterday for that). But you can see the effect on the magnetic field loops! They suddenly become far more organized, tight, and calm.

The Sun is fiendishly complex, and astonishingly beautiful. Clearly, to our brains, these things are connected. Remember, too: this beauty, this magnificence, is brought to you by science. Without our curiosity and our need to understand the Universe better, you would never have been able to watch in awe as superheated plasma arcs dwarfing the Earth itself grew and collapsed on the surface of a star one hundred fifty million kilometers away.

Think of that the next time someone says science takes away the beauty and mystery of life.

Credit: NASA/SDO/

Related posts:

The Sun’s still blasting out flares… BIG ones
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

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Astronomy, Cool stuff, Pretty pictures

Comments (17)

  1. tmac57

    Very nice Phil. You should do all of your solar posts on Sunday.

  2. Ganzy

    Those loops are mesmerizing, I could sit and watch them all day long. To mentally project an image of Earth positioned at the base of one of those loops for scale, certainly gives you some perspective.

    It’s funny because no matter how many images or how much footage I have watched of the Sun, even though I know what it is, a part of me still wants to pinch myself at the reality of this object of wonder. I mean, an actual star, just like most of those other twinkly points of light I see scattered across the night sky. But this one is up close and personal, and very fierce. Then on the other hand, a part of me just takes it for granted.

    I am just so glad that I won’t be going to my grave never having had the opportunity of having my understanding and perspective of this life altered and expanded.

    Thank you to all those great minds past and present for patiently piecing together this great big jigsaw puzzle of reality, through science.

  3. Pass the marshmallows, please.

  4. Jeffersonian

    It’s insane. And it’s just amazing that we have quick access to such a vid.

  5. I love the “o” caption- it was a perfect chance to explain perspective to my 5 year old son. We went on to watch a powers of 10 video which slightly bored him. When I explained that the milky way cloud it showed was visible from here, it grabbed his attention, and when I showed him, it actually gave me a hug and thanked me for showing him (It was a little weird, honestly.)

    Good job Phil, your blog made a 5 year old appreciate space. That’s something to be proud of.

  6. Pete Jackson

    Very nice post, Phil. Very beautiful, yet educational and instructive.

    But all those ‘golden arches’ definitely made me hungry for a cheeseburger! (I think my diet’s really getting to me).

  7. Crux Australis

    Why does the camera shudder early in the video?

  8. KABLAM!! Indeed! :)

    Crux Australis: Why does the camera shudder early in the video?
    Because it’s Just. That. Awesome.
    Seriously though, good question. Is the SDO tweaking its reaction wheels or something?

  9. I have a question, though. For the life of me I’ve been having a hard time understanding how field lines can become “tangled”. If the lines themselves aren’t solid, what do they get tangled around? Where is the energy being stored, exactly? Is there a way to experiment with magnetic reconnection at home (or at least in a lab)?

  10. anosa

    woah, that’s beautiful, like watching moving fractals.

    also, obligatory:
    I guess you could say that was…
    …a stellar view.

  11. VinceRN

    Wow, I go away for a few days and you come up with all this wonderful stuff to keep me up to late on the night I get back. Thanks!

  12. Pepijn

    Is anyone else seeing this: twice now in recent days a Bad Astronomy article has shown up in Google Reader, but when I click on it I get a 404 error from, and the article itself is nowhere to be found.

    Right now there is an article called “Strange yet cool VLA time lapse video” on this feed in Google Reader. I can read it and even watch the video in Google Reader, but when I try to click through to the blog, I get a 404 error, and the article I’m commenting on now is still the most recent article.

    Yesterday the same thing happened with another article (I don’t remember which one, so I don’t know whether it is now to be found on the site or not).

    Phil, have you posted and then deleted these articles perhaps? Or is something else going on? Am I seeing things? Is my Google Reader haunted? 😉

  13. Mike

    Might be a stupid question, but hey.. Im clueless:
    Is this video covering 26. – 28. speeded up? Or is this a real-time extract of the video you made?

  14. Sue W.

    So it’s not just me, Pepijn! Except I couldn’t see the time lapse on Google Reader either. Bummer.

  15. Pepijn

    The “Strange yet cool VLA time lapse video” article is now up on the blog, but it is in a different position. I think Phil sometimes puts articles up, only to take them down again to fix a mistake or something, but in the mean time Google Reader has already downloaded it.

    Not a huge deal, but something to be aware of.


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