Yesterday, over the course of about three hours, the sun spat out a slavering tongue of fire that rained down upon the solar body in chunks of plasma larger than planets. Naturally, NASA's army of instruments policing space recorded the whole flaming ordeal.
The flare was unusual in that much of the gaseous matter it ejected was relatively cool, showing up as dark in the below video from the Solar Dynamics Observatory. Some of it gleams as it slams into the Sun’s surface, while other chunks are sucked back into the sunspot by powerful magnetic attraction. Commenting on the spectacle, NASA physicist C. Alex Young said he’d never seen such a huge amount of material released like this before. “It looked like somebody had just kicked a giant clod of dirt up into the air and then it fell back down,” said Young.
Try to keep in mind the insane dimensions of this M2-class flare. While not as large as the biggest X-class flares, it still had a power 10 million times greater than a volcanic eruption. For comparison, check out this image of the Earth superimposed upon the plasma prominence caused by a M3.6 flare on Feb. 24. Nothing is better than a solar flare, the largest explosions in our universe, for making you feel puny and insignificant.
But this monstrous blowout isn’t quite over, yet.
The initial flash showered the immediate vicinity yesterday with virtually every type of radiation, from X-rays to radio waves to intense white light. Now arrives a slower-moving coronal mass ejection (if 870 miles per second is “slow”), a cloud of magnetically charged particles that will clip the planet tonight or Thursday. The buzzing, invisible plume isn’t expected to cause havoc – satellites will not fall from the sky, and the electric grid will keep functioning – but people who live in the upper latitudes could spot ghostly auroras as the CME jangles Earth’s magnetic field.
You can expect more of these violent outbursts from the Sun as it sputters through the active period of its 11-year solar cycle. The solar maximum, or time of most intense activity, is predicted to occur from 2012 to 2014. Monitor the current weather conditions in space here.
Want more flare flair? A combined view, taken by SDO and the Navy's Large Angle and Spectrometric Coronagraph, shows the immense distance it shot into space. Here's the thing as witnessed by the SDO's Atmospheric Imaging Assembly. And this weird video shows charged particles (the bright flecks) smacking into the lens of the Solar and Heliospheric Observatory spacecraft.