My friend Cara Santa Maria is a scientific researcher and educator. She’s also Senior Science Editor with The Huffington Post, where she does a video show called "Talk Nerdy To Me". She contacted me recently because she wanted to do an episode on solar storms – how they work, and how they can affect us here on Earth. She interviewed me about them, and the episode is online at HuffPo:
[Note: If the video doesn't appear directly above this sentence, refresh your screen.]
The Sun has been a bit feisty lately, spitting out some decent flares and coronal mass ejections. So far, none has been both strong enough and aimed at us to do any damage (there was a fairly powerful CME in July, but it was on the other side of the Sun, directed away from us). And while they can’t hurt us directly due to our protective atmosphere, as I say in the video solar storms can disrupt our power grid and our satellites, creating havoc. The more we study the Sun the better we understand it, and the more likely we’ll be able to protect ourselves should it decide to throw another major hissy fit.
I’ll add that Cara’s good people, and I like her show (she interviewed me for the Venus Transit, too). She’s passionate about science education, and like me she finds real joy and wonder in all fields of science and nature. You can follow her on Twitter.
[Edited to add: the shirt I'm wearing in the video (watch to the very end!) is available at Lardfork's Spreadshirt store.]
Speaking of solar storms causing gorgeous auroral displays…
In late October, a coronal mass ejection (CME) — a violent explosion of subatomic particles erupting from the Sun at high speeds — blasted away from our star, impacting the Earth, and setting off aurorae seen as far south as Arkansas. It was cloudy here in Boulder, but from space, the view is always clear. NASA’s STEREO spacecraft are twin machines, one ahead of the Earth, one behind, both staring at the Sun 24/7. They are currently roughly 100° around the Earth’s orbit, so they are essentially seeing the Sun "from the side".
STEREO A, ahead of the Earth in its orbit, captured images of the Sun during October’s solar hissy fit, and got dramatic footage of the explosion:
Yegads. [Make sure you click the HD button to see this in all its glory.]
The Earth is off to the left, well off-screen, in this animation. The Sun is blocked by a circular mask, so fainter things can be seen (its disk is represented by the white circle). The big CME occurred early on October 22 and is followed by others.
Last month, on May 10/11, a bright comet took the Final Plunge, dropping into the Sun. It either broke up and evaporated or actually impacted the Sun, because it wasn’t seen to reappear around the other side. Here’s the video, taken using NASA’s SOHO satellite:
Pretty cool! You can see the Sun erupting with a coronal mass ejection, too. It’s tempting to wonder if the two are related, but in fact the CME let go before the comet had even had a chance to interact with the Sun’s magnetic field (CMEs are essentially magnetic events). I know there are tracts floating around the ‘net about comets causing solar events, but the folks promulgating such ideas never do any actual statistics. They see a comet plunge into the Sun, see a flare or CME, and say they’re related. However, you have to look at how many events happen without comets nearby, and more importantly how many comets hit the Sun and don’t spark an event. Without that, you’re just cherry-picking.
Incidentally, you may have noticed a very short horizontal line going right through the heart of the comet. That’s not real; it’s an artifact of the detector on SOHO. It’s called blooming, and it has nothing to do with Planet X unless you’re willing to turn your back firmly on reality.
Anyway, comets hit the Sun quite often; many have similar orbits and are called Kreutz family comets. It’s funny: many of them get bright enough to technically be seen by the eye, but they’re so close to the Sun they still get washed out.
Actually, now that I think about it, I should mention that SOHO is the greatest comet finder of all time; over 2000 comets have been seen in SOHO images! It seems funny to look to the Sun to find comets, but it’s also amazing to me to think that those 2000 comets have been seen in only 16 years since SOHO’s launch… think about how many comets are out there, in deep space. Millions. Billions. More.
We live in an amazing place, and in an amazing time that we can discover so much about it.
Science! I love this stuff.
Our nearest star has woken up for real and for sure. After several years of stubborn silence, the Sun has unleashed several fairly big explosions of material. Called Coronal Mass Ejections, or CMEs, these gigantic events blast out hundreds of billions of tons of matter into space. They create vast interplanetary shock waves, and when they reach the Earth can cause all sorts of havoc. They are different from solar flares, but have similar origins in the Sun’s magnetic field.
NASA’s recently-launched Solar Dynamics Observatory caught the action mid-eruption. This image shows million-degree-hot gas blasting off the surface, entangled in the Sun’s strong magnetic field. The most recent CMEs probably won’t do much more than give us pretty aurorae — they’ve already been spotted — which is good (worse effects are the loss of satellites and potential blackouts on Earth). In fact, if you live in the far north or south you may be able to see the light show.
You can read more about this at Orbiting Frog, SpaceWeather (with pictures!), Universe Today, and pretty much every other space blog on the planet. I’m probably too far south and in far too light-polluted skies to see, but give it a try if you can. Aurorae can be quite spectacular.
But if you miss it, don’t fret: I’m sure we’ll get lots of other opportunities. The Sun is gearing up for the peak of its cycle in the next three years or so, and there will be plenty of chances to watch as our sky reacts.
Image credit: NASA/SDO