NASA’s satellite the Solar Dynamics Observatory caught the sun spewing a mass of solar material into space last week, and today published a video of the scorching ejection.
This eruption from the sun’s surface lasted for three and a half hours, though the event is sped up to be viewable in 18 seconds. This solar stuff is plasma, the fourth state of matter that is most closely related to gas, though it’s a gas infused with enough energy to kick electrons free of their parent atoms and exist as an invigorated wave of electrons and atoms.
As can be seen in the video, the sun did not release all of the ejected matter into space. The sun’s massive gravity, combined with magnetic forces, yanked the energetic gas back to its solar home.
Ejections from the sun’s surface are created by explosions of energy, all which are powerful, but happen in varying degrees. Scientists suspect that any eruption is caused by motions in the sun’s hyper-condensed core, which can warp and twist the sun’s magnetic fields. As the fields realign, “like the sudden release of a twisted rubber band,” according to NASA, they trigger these explosive events, which can spew the sun’s matter into space.
The greatest type of explosion, not evident here, is called a Corneal Mass Ejection (CME), which is huge mass of charged solar particles that shoot into space in one specific direction. A CME will take about three days to reach Earth, but if it slams into our planet, it can disrupt radio waves and, at worst, overload our electrical systems and cause severe power outages. In one estimate from the National Science Foundation, such a blast from the sun can wreak havoc on the Eastern Seaboard’s electrical infrastructure, killing power for an entire year.
Eruptions on the sun’s surface, large or small, are difficult to predict, but NASA hopes to better understand these events. Next summer it will send the heavily armored Parker Solar Probe into the sun’s outer atmosphere to improve Earthlings’ negligible understanding of our home star.