The raw power of the Sun

By Phil Plait | October 19, 2012 11:00 am

Early this morning, while you were sleeping, or working, or reading Twitter, the Sun had different plans: it erupted, blasting an immense tower of plasma upward off its surface:

[Click to enheliosenate.]

This image was taken by NASA’s Solar Dynamic Observatory at 08:15 UTC this morning. The scale of it is staggering. The Sun is 1.4 million kilometers across – 860,000 miles – so this plume was at least 400,000 km long. Going back through the images, it had been brewing for hours, but really got its start around 05:00, meaning it erupted upwards at well over 100,000 km per hour. That’s fast enough to cross the face of our planet in less than 8 minutes.

By the way, did I mention the total mass of such a prominence is billions of tons? And the Sun does this kind of thing all the time.

We’re in no real danger from an eruption like this, especially this one: it’s on the Sun’s limb, so it was heading away from us. But these events can trigger storms like coronal mass ejections, where billions of tons of material is sent hurtling across the solar system at mind-crushing speeds. Those can interact with our magnetic field, creating havoc with our satellites and causing power outages.

But that’s why we keep an eye – many eyes, in fact – on our Sun. Never forget: our Sun is a star, with all the power and fury that implies. The better we understand it, the better we can protect ourselves from it when it gets angry.

Image credit: NASA/SDO. Tip o’ the welder’s glasses to Camilla SDO.


Related Posts:

- STEREO catches an eruptive prominence
- A HUGE solar filament erupts into space (and HD video of it too; must see!)
- Awesomely blemished inverted solar beauty
- Rain on the Sun

MORE ABOUT: prominence, SDO, solar storm, Sun

Comments (16)

  1. Awe inspiring. Power beyond comprehension!

  2. Jonathan Latimer

    100,000 km per hour/8 minutes to CROSS Earth. Misread that the first time.

    Still blindingly fast…

  3. CatMom

    I just love coming here for my daily dose of astronomical eye candy!

  4. If you’d like to see the raw power of the Sun changing as it awakened after the Solar Minimum of 2008-2009, take a look at my music video “A year and a half of SOHO Sun” at the NASA Solar and Heliospheric Observatory site: http://sohowww.nascom.nasa.gov/hotshots/2011_07_25/
    (The FAQ page for this video is at: http://calgary.rasc.ca/downloads/FAQs_about_The_Sun_video.pdf)

  5. DanM

    May I suggest “Click to enflareify” or perhaps “Click to giant-whorling-loops-of-superheated-plasma-enate”? Has a nice ring to it…

  6. Matt B.

    Billions of tons? Gosh, that’s worth about 1,000 seconds of its fusion-based matter-energy conversion.

  7. Reidh

    Even though it was traveling perpendicular to our present position, it still added to the overall temperature of the corona ( as how could it not? ) which affects our global climate, and there will still be vestigial radiant energy extant when we get around to that side of the sun in our orbit.

    so your statement: “We’re in no real danger from an eruption like this, especially this one: it’s on the Sun’s limb, so it was heading away from us.”, is naive and misleading.

    see this quote from: http://space.about.com/od/solarsystem/tp/sun10things.htm

    “Above the chromosphere lies the corona (“crown”), extending outward from the Sun in the form of the “solar wind” to the edge of the solar system. The corona is extremely hot – millions of degrees kelvin. Since it is physically impossible to transfer thermal energy from the cooler surface of the Sun to the much hotter corona, the source of coronal heating has been a scientific mystery for more than 60 years.”

  8. DanM

    @#7 Reidh:
    I’m no solar physicist, but based on what I do know, I would guess that the heating of the earth due to coronal ejections is basically insignificant. The corona is hot, it is true – but it is also very tenuous. Even near the solar surface, the particle density in the corona is many orders of magnitude smaller than that of the earth’s atmosphere at sea level. And of course the density of coronal mass ejections drops dramatically as they stream outward from the sun. Remember that the millions-of-degrees temperature of the corona is a measure of the average speed of the particles, but says nothing about how many particles (per unit volume). You can have a million-degree plasma that wouldn’t have the power to boil a teaspoon of water, if the number density is low enough. Even if the CME is large, the density is really small.

    As Phil mentions in his blog post, CMEs can have an effect on the earth (e.g., damaging satellite electronics), but I would guess that there is essentially no effect on our climate, based on the argument about density. So, my conclusion is that the wording is neither naive nor misleading.

    If I’m wrong, if there is some evidence for CME heating of the earth’s atmosphere, then somebody please provide a reference. I’d be curious to know how that works.

  9. jim zushin

    It’s me again, 59 fat and bald. Oh yeah, and a believer in Jesus as the messiah; one of the finest gifts my son has given me is your blog. To see these creations and hear from you who far exceed my educational level on what the physics are behind these marvels, and the picture before taken by Thierry, what a wonderful planet we live on. Thanks so much for showing me so much.

  10. #7 Reidh:
    What exactly are you wittering about???
    Firstly, you claim that “it still added to the overall temperature of the corona ( as how could it not? )” – then you quote some text which ( correctly ) contradicts that idiotic statement, namely, “it is physically impossible to transfer thermal energy from the cooler surface of the Sun to the much hotter corona”.
    The latter is correct; therefore your own claim is completely and utterly wrong. But you accuse Dr. Plait of being “naive” about astrophysics – in which he has a Ph.D.!!!!!
    Secondly, as DanM said, the effect of the corona on the Earth’s climate and atmosphere is precisely nothing. While the corona is indeed very hot, it’s also, by terrestrial standards, a pretty good vacuum.
    Finally, “when we get around to that side of the sun in our orbit”. HUH????? As the flare was emitted at more or less 90 degrees to our line of sight, that means it will take three months for the Earth to reach that point in its orbit, doesn’t it??? So this event happens on a timescale of a few hours, but you somehow imagine that it will somehow pose a threat to us in three months’ time??? Of course, the point on the Sun from which the flare was emitted will align with our line of sight in a matter of days, due to the Sun’s rotation.
    DUH!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  11. Diederick

    #10. Neil, I’m with you on this, but you’re using up all the exclamation marks.

  12. DanM

    !!!!!! <—- extras

  13. Gary Ansorge

    As we’ve learned from our efforts with controlled nuclear fusion, these objects made of plasmas have a tendency to wiggle,ie, they have plasma instabilities. The only thing that keeps the sun shining is, it is so massive that its instabilities are negligible (and gravity squishes everything back down,,,well, ALMOST everything).

    Building fusion bombs is child’s play compared to trying to replicate what the sun does on a small scale…

    It’s really cool being able to watch this fusion furnace in action.

    Gary 7

  14. @7. Reidh :

    Even though it was traveling perpendicular to our present position, it still added to the overall temperature of the corona ( as how could it not? ) which affects our global climate, and there will still be vestigial radiant energy extant when we get around to that side of the sun in our orbit.

    When it comes to our Sun affecting climate I highly recommend you click on and view the link in my name here – Climate Denial Crock of the Week – Solar Schmolar youtube series episode by Peter Sinclair /Greenman3610.

    The solar influence on our climate, whilst a more significant albeit never sole factor in the past, is currently well and truly overwhelmed by the affect of Humanity’s Greenhouse gas emissions. :-(

    @ 8. DanM :

    As Phil mentions in his blog post, CMEs can have an effect on the earth (e.g., damaging satellite electronics), but I would guess that there is essentially no effect on our climate, based on the argument about density. So, my conclusion is that the wording is neither naive nor misleading.

    I agree with your conclusion there, DanM. :-)

    The Bad Astronomer, of course, has a whole chapter in his second book on solar flares and there’s a good although perhaps too optimistic post online by Ethan Siegel on his Starts With A Bang blog about the solar flare =Dooom! topic too.

    @11. Diederick : Its alright, there’s no shortage of them!!! See!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!…1.? (Uh-oh?) ;-)

  15. See :

    http://scienceblogs.com/startswithabang/2011/02/23/the-facts-on-solar-storms/

    For Ethan Siegel’s Starts With A Bang blog post about the solar storm worries.

    See also :

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pAx6j625iy4&feature=plcp

    where Santa Klaus heads off to destroy our Sun with nukes – and a great debunking of the cosmic ray-solar -climate link canard.

    In addition to the Bad Astronomer’s own debunking of the Solar -cosmic ray causation of Global Overheating here :

    http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/badastronomy/2011/08/31/no-a-new-study-does-not-show-cosmic-rays-are-connected-to-global-warming/

    Or search box cut’n'paste : “No, a new study does not show cosmic-rays are connected to global warming” posted by the BA on the 31st August 2011 at 9:32 AM.

    Don’t forget too the related links at the end of that link /BA blog article and there’s an additional Skeptical Science takedown of the ever popular but wrong “Solar causation for HIRGO”* urban myth linked to my name complete with a pretty neat graph as well.

    Hope these help and answers any questions Reidh and others may have. :-)

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