The Sun’s great idea

The Sun has a great idea

23 July 2012

A light bulb-shaped eruption leaps from the Sun and blasts into space in this archival image from the ESA/NASA Solar and Heliospheric Observatory, SOHO.

SOHO captured the scene on 27 February 2000, watching as a large filament rose from the Sun’s broiling atmosphere and evolved into the coronal mass ejection loop seen here.

A coronal mass ejection – or CME – is a huge cloud of magnetised plasma ejected from the Sun’s atmosphere – the corona – and launched into interplanetary space. They comprise millions of tonnes of gas and race away from the Sun at hundreds of kilometres per second.

If a powerful CME is aimed in Earth’s direction then the resulting geomagnetic storm may trigger regional power outages and communications blackouts.

But CMEs also have an appealing side: interactions with Earth’s magnetic field ignite auroras over the northern or southern poles, producing spectacular natural light displays that dance across the night sky in shades of red and green.

This particular CME shows three distinctive features as it leaps from the Sun. A bright loop of plasma leads the way with a dark, low-density cavity behind it. The light bulb ‘filament’ – a bright orb of solar plasma – follows behind and dominates the centre of feature.

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