A HUGE solar filament erupts into space

By Phil Plait | September 10, 2012 11:45 am

On August 31, the Sun threw a major tantrum. It started with a vast arc of material towering over its surface, a stream of plasma flowing between two sunspots. Sometimes these collapse back down to the Sun’s surface, but this one exploded, blasting hundreds of millions of tons of material out into space.

SDO captured this ridiculously awesome picture of the arc just before it erupted:

Holy solar hissy fit! [Click to enfilamentenate.]

This picture is a combination of two images, both in the extreme ultraviolet part of the spectrum (30.4 and 17.1 nanometers, to be specific), where magnetic activity is easy to spot. The bright spot to the upper left is a sunspot, which are normally dark in optical light, but shine brightly in the UV. The filament, as the arch is called, is so big it’s hard to comprehend: it was something like 300,000 kilometers (nearly 200,000 miles) across! That’s nearly enough to extend from the Earth to the Moon.

Having a hard time picturing that? Yeah, me too. Happily, NASA provided an image with the Earth for comparison. Yegads. And there are more images of the event on the NASA/Goddard Flickr page.

Stephen Ramsden is an astronomer who runs the Charlie Bates Solar Astronomy Project, and he saw it while at Dragon*Con! I was at D*C but totally missed this, but he got a very cool picture too. As you can see in this picture, it was erupting when he caught it. I’m kicking myself to have missed the solar observing at the con, and next year I’ll be sure to take a look. I’d hate to miss something like this again!

For his non-profit Charlie Bates Solar Astronomy Project, Stephen takes solar telescopes across his region and uses them to teach people (including kids!) about the Sun and its effect on us. I’ll note he accepts donations to help him do this. Hint hint.

Finally, I’ll add that this amazing solar eruption traveled outward at about 1500 kilometers per second (900 miles/second) and nicked the Earth’s magnetic field on September 3, sparking aurorae in extreme latitudes. This had little real impact on us, but I gently remind you the Sun is still not at its peak. It’ll reach the max of its cycle next year sometime, and the biggest flares and other storms tend to happen a few months after the peak. It’s hard to say if this will do any damage – loss of satellites and power blackouts are possible, though no direct harm to humans on Earth can happen – but we’ll see. The most likely outcome is aurorae, so keep your browser tuned to the NOAA Space Weather Prediction Center and SpaceWeather. If we do get aurorae, those are great places to let you know.

Images credit: NASA/GSFC/SDO; Stephen Ramsden

Related Posts:

Awesomely blemished inverted solar beauty
Talk Nerdy To Me: Solar storms
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GORGEOUS solar eruption!

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Astronomy, Cool stuff, Pretty pictures
MORE ABOUT: filament, SDO, solar storm, Sun

Comments (37)

  1. Duuuuude

    My puny brain cannot comprehend that picture (or any solar flare) close-up as being real. Is there anything I can tell myself to help with my brain’s denial of awesomeness?

  2. Well, now I have a new desktop background. That is one heck of a picture!

  3. bbGeeky

    “Pssh… you see one solar storm you’ve seeHOLY COW look at that!”

  4. Pete Jackson

    Filamentary, my dear Watson.

  5. Marina Stern

    If experience teaches us anything, it is that, if auroras occur over Oregon, it will be overcast on the coast. :(

  6. Ben S.

    Phoenix force? Phoenix force.

  7. ReasJack

    More beautiful than a Turner or a van Gogh painting

  8. Mejilan

    Wooow. What an amazing composite!
    Kind of neat to see our little blue marble of a planet set against that fiery arc!

  9. AliCali

    First thought: That’s a REAL picture and not just an artist’s conception? Wow!

    Second thought: So we’re approaching maximum, eh? Maybe we’ll see more of these…say around December of 2012? Hmm.

  10. CatMom

    Better get the Sun some Alka-Seltzer. Or maybe Pepto-Bismol.

    Whoa. What a great picture. Of course, if there’s any aurora activity, it’ll be cloudy here in the Seattle area.

  11. Nicholas

    Are there any man-made satellites with a helio-stationary orbit? I’m not even sure if that’s the right term… Do we have a way of monitoring solar activity on the side of the sun opposite to us?

  12. Chris

    So that you say it nicked us on Sep 3 – what would a full-on hit have resulted in? Too much speculation involved? Or should I direct this to xkcd’s new question and answer site?

  13. GA_Wolf

    That Flickr link brings a whole new level of appreciation for the Kepler mission. We are able to spot something as small as the Earth passing in front of something larger than our sun, thousands upon thousands of light years away. Incredible.

  14. Bill Nettles

    Okay, my blackbody radiation (BBR) computer is confused. If sunspots are cooler regions (4000 K) than the photosphere (6000 K) and hence darker in visible light, why are they bright in UV? Must be something other than BBR, but what?

    Nicholas, we have SOHO which is at the Lagrange point between the Sun and Earth. We can monitor the backside by something they call solar holography (seriously), but it’s really just magic. :)

  15. GregoryInSeattle

    I’m curious: this was classed as a C8, at the top end of the lowest of the three classes. Was this actually a major eruption, or a relatively minor one that threw a tantrum?

  16. We have the NASA STEREO probes (A-ahead & B-behind) which, while not in heliocentric orbits, they do orbit the Sun from different positions. Every few years they get exactly opposite of each other and we get a full 360 degree view. Most of the time we get the majority of the Sun from 2 viewpoints and it is used for incredible 3D imaging of the Sun. Search NASA STEREO 360 for more info.

    This explosion was enormous, quick and incredible to watch in the scopes by the way. It was much brighter in the higher CaK (393nm) wavelengths than the standard Hydrogen Alpha (656.28nm) wavelengths that most amateur astronomers use.

  17. JMW

    Phil…you’ve called some images “ridiculously awesome” before. For this one, the phrase does not do it justice.

  18. Nigel Depledge

    CatMom (15) said:

    Of course, if there’s any aurora activity, it’ll be cloudy here in the Seattle area.

    You mean there are times when it isn’t cloudy in the Seattle area???


  19. Messier Tidy Upper

    Truly superluminous. Cheers! 8)

  20. Jagoff

    I still have trouble looking at that and telling myself it’s not an artist conception. Amazing.

  21. Eric

    I was wondering do solar flares give off sound, and if it does, what would it sound like? I just wanted to know, I think it would be fascinated to here that

  22. CatMom

    Nigel Depledge said:
    You mean there are times when it isn’t cloudy in the Seattle area???

    Of course it’s clear here sometimes. Usually on days/nights with no exciting astronomical events going on. Example: In May, we had 3 beautiful weekends in a row. On the day of the annular eclipse (90+% coverage here), it was cloudy and raining. Arrrrrrgh!

  23. jackd

    Looking at the solar ‘scopes was a highlight of Dragon*Con. As luck would have it, I was there the day after the big flare, but Steve was happy to talk about it and much more. The flare went off underneath the arch of a prominence. This kicked one end loose and the filament was around 800,000km when they captured the image. According to Steve, there was a young woman there (I think he said a sixth-grader, so someone about 11 years old) who actually clicked the mouse on the big iMac to get the shot.

  24. casualasbirds

    Phil, I always enjoy your pictures, but this one is really special. Thanks.

  25. Infinite123Lifer

    @28 CatMom

    We did have a clear day for the Venus transit! Woohoo 1 for 27 when it comes to viewing astronomical events in the Northwest, but I got a picture so its a little sweeter for me i guess :) Though I must say Sirius, Venus, Orion and the Moon have been stunning to watch the past week in the early early am, between the quiet of the morning and the splendor of the early am night sky the feeling is immensely calming for me. I think Neptune and Uranus might have been out there too possibly, and Jupiter earlier, maybe Mars, and well, yeah, as you all know, its a big sky.

    That’s pretty cool jackd.

  26. daniel

    HA! getty up little planets.

  27. Jack M.

    Thanks for the new desktop background, Phil.


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