A dramatic explosion in the sun known as a coronal mass ejection ignited the spectacular aurora borealis along the Earth’s northern latitudes last week. While the dazzling light show was stunning, what was equally impressive was NASA’s Solar Dynamic’s Observatory captured the eruption on the sun, giving us a close-up view of the phenomenon.
A coronal mass ejection is the result of a kind of tug of war on the sun, which starts when cooler clouds of solar material get trapped to the sun’s surface by unstable forces, in this case taking on the whip-like appearance–or “solar filament”–that you see in the NASA video above. When the tension gets too great the whip “snaps” and hot plasma shoots spectacularly out into space. This particular plasma shot out at 900 miles per second. Travelling at that speed it would take you five minutes to go from Earth to the moon.
Image courtesy NASA/David Cartier Sr.
Not only was the filament fast, it was big. “It is hard to easily judge the size of this 3D event with a 2D image at this angle, but this filament is probably on the order of 30 Earths across,” as NASA solar physicist C. Alex Young explained to Space.com.
Events like this don’t just result in the creation of amazing NASA videos and photos. All that charged energy can cause major disruptions to satellite and radio communications, and even take down power grids.
But Earth didn’t take a direct hit this time. The eruption just brushed us enough to create some pretty stunning Northern Lights as energy released by the explosion interacted with the magnetosphere. (The magnetosphere is the layer of the atmosphere that has the coolest name and contains Earth’s magnetic field.)
And our star may be putting on similar shows in the coming months as it enters a phase of peak magnetic activity in 2013.