GORGEOUS solar eruption!

By Phil Plait | April 16, 2012 4:22 pm

Right now as I write this, the Sun is settling down after a minor flare tripped a flippin’ huge and spectacular prominence: a looping tower of plasma hundreds of thousands of kilometers high! Using Helioviewer.org, I created a short movie of the eruption, and you just have to see it. Make sure you have the resolution set to hi-def!

Isn’t that amazing? The flare that triggered this event was no big deal, about an M1.7, which is nothing to worry about at all. We had far bigger ones in March! But that arc of plasma — ionized gas — is astonishing. Flares happen when the magnetic field lines of the Sun get tangled, and suddenly release their vast, vast stored energy. The erupting plasma follows those field lines up and away from the Sun. Some escapes forever, and some falls back to the surface. You can easily see it flowing in these videos.

These views show the eruption in two different wavelengths, though both are in the ultraviolet, where the magnetic activity is easiest to see. My friends at NASA Goddard put up some fantastic pictures of it, like the one above [click to embiggen]. They have some video there, too.

I’ll note that the active region shown here is on the side of the Sun rotating toward the Earth right now, so if there are more eruptions in the next few days we may see some affect on Earth, like aurorae at northern latitudes. As usual, you don’t need to panic about this stuff. The worst it can realistically do here on Earth is cause blackouts if a particularly big storm overloads our power grid. And while that would be irritating, it’s unlikely. So sit back and enjoy the show!

[Edited to add: Some folks are asking how long this event took; it went from start to finish in just a few hours. Another common question is how big the Earth would be compared to this, and the answer is: really really teeny. Check out the curve of the Sun’s edge, and remember that the Sun is over 100 times the diameter of the Earth!]

Credits: NASA/SDO/helioviewer.org. Music: “Feral Chase” by Kevin MacLeod.


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Desktop Project Part 8: From filament to prominence
The Sun decided to blow off a little steam today. Twice.
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MORE ABOUT: flare, prominence, SDO, Sun

Comments (12)

  1. How much of that would I be able to see with an H-alpha telescope? I’m toying with the idea of getting a Coronado PST or similar. Those prominences would be quite a sight to see with my own eyes!

  2. Cindy

    Cool! My students were looking at the Sun today around 11 AM EDT (with a solar filter on an 8″ Meade). The kids were asking if they could see a flare or a prominence and I said that they needed to see it in different wavelengths.

    Perfect timing as I’m covering sunspots and flares tomorrow!

  3. vince charles

    Robin/Cindy- With any functional Hydrogen-alpha filter, you’d see a great deal for prominences at the limb, since you’re seeing them against the blackness of space. However, that’s about it besides sunspots, which can also be seen with much cheaper white-light filters. (Or even the old pinhole trick- practically free.) To see prominences anywhere other than the limb, you’d need to spend the extra money for a narrowband hydrogen-alpha filter, or possibly other types entirely. These are harder to make consistently, and cost more.

    Personally, I found a good deal on a white-light filter, and that’s good enough for me. For anything else, an internet connection is the best “filter” there is.

  4. sunspotter

    Robin – I agree with vince that a white-light filter is a great way to see sunspots, but a double-stacked Coronado PST would yield incredible views of an event like today. The double-stack gives you a very narrow <0.5A passband. You will also be able to see quite a bit of surface granulation on a good day (or if you have the $ to spend on aperture)

    In fact, to quote someone on the San Diego Astronomy Associtaion mailing list earlier today:
    "If you have h-alpha, prepare to use it now." I didn't get a chance to look through a PST during the event today, but some days I can sit and stare at the sun for hours. (with the right equipment, of course)

    Plus if you get both (wink wink) you will be all set for both the annular eclipse next month and the venus transit in June, and the envy of budding solar observers everywhere!

  5. Wouter

    Is it me or does it look like the stamp tool from photoshop in the left bottom corner?

  6. Wzrd1

    The more I see these things, I recall further Brother Cavil’s speech…
    “Brother Cavil: In all your travels, have you ever seen a star go supernova?
    Ellen Tigh: No.
    Brother Cavil: No? Well, I have. I saw a star explode and send out the building blocks of the Universe. Other stars, other planets and eventually other life. A supernova! Creation itself! I was there. I wanted to see it and be part of the moment. And you know how I perceived one of the most glorious events in the universe? With these ridiculous gelatinous orbs in my skull! With eyes designed to perceive only a tiny fraction of the EM spectrum. With ears designed only to hear vibrations in the air.
    Ellen Tigh: The five of us designed you to be as human as possible.
    Brother Cavil: I don’t want to be human! I want to see gamma rays! I want to hear X-rays! And I want to – I want to smell dark matter! Do you see the absurdity of what I am? I can’t even express these things properly because I have to – I have to conceptualize complex ideas in this stupid limiting spoken language! But I know I want to reach out with something other than these prehensile paws! And feel the wind of a supernova flowing over me! I’m a machine! And I can know much more! I can experience so much more. But I’m trapped in this absurd body! And why? Because my five creators thought that God wanted it that way!”

    Then, I remember, I KNOW we observe these things in those frequencies and can gather that information, rather than be flooded with too much information at once. :)

  7. Matthew

    Did this run backwards in the end, or do the loops collapse / get sucked back down along the magnetic fields that create them?

  8. GEORGE LASSOES STORK!

  9. Well, that will certainly toast up a few marshmallows. Though I’m also wondering if it fried a few phone circuits; our outgoing POTS LD service (MCI) has been intermittently unavailable for the last two days (message=”all LD circuits are in use”).

  10. Kayla I

    What would this look like in visible wavelengths?

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