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.
– Desktop Project Part 8: From filament to prominence
– The Sun decided to blow off a little steam today. Twice.
– Gorgeous flowing plasma fountain erupts from the Sun
– A fiery angel erupts from the Sun
At 03:48 UT on August 9 (earlier today as I write this), the Sun blasted out another flare, the largest of the cycle so far. It was seen by the orbiting Solar Dynamics Observatory:
[Click to ensolarnate.]
This image shows the Sun in the far ultraviolet; sunspots appear bright at this wavelength and the flare is pretty obvious! It came from a sunspot that is near the Sun’s limb. Since it was so far to the side it’s unlikely to do us much harm here on the Earth’s surface, though there may be some satellite communication issues. It also blew out a storm of subatomic particles, which might potentially harm astronauts in space. I haven’t heard yet if the crew on the space station will need to seek shelter deeper inside the structure (they’ve had to do that before in solar events, but there’s never been any case of diagnosed harm).
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