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The Sun’s Bright Idea

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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Here’s an eruption from the sun that happened just a few days ago. It is a coronal mass ejection that loops out from the sun, looking slightly like a lightbulb that has just switched on. But it’s a far cry from a 60 watt bulb – the temperature of the solar corona where the bubble erupts is around a million degrees Celcius.

The frames from this video were taken by Solar and Heliospheric Observatory’s (SOHO) Large Angle and Spectrometric Coronagraph (LASCO) C2 instrument, that blocks light from the main disk of the sun to better see the sun’s atmosphere.

Coronal mass ejections, CMEs, are bursts of charged particles that hurtle through space at millions of miles an hour. They can make for pretty images. But they can also be pretty damaging too, if Earth gets in their way. In the past CMEs and similar phenomena called solar flares have caused power outages, radio blackouts and more.

This burst comes a month after scientists spotted one of the fastest CMEs since STEREO launched in 2006. That eruption would almost have been big enough to cause a geomagnetic storm as severe as the Carrington Event of 1859, during which aurorae were visible as far south as Hawaii and were bright enough in the northeastern US to read a newspaper by in the middle of the night. (Though if there was an aurora going on overhead I think I’d probably pay more attention to that.) But, luckily, the CME that erupted in July this year was pointing safely away from us.

Still, all these solar storms are slightly unnerving. Especially as we know the sun is approaching its next peak in activity in spring 2013.

So now is probably a good time to point to my feature at BBC Future from earlier this year, about how scientists are developing new techniques to predict solar storms (UK residents will want to go here instead).

Let’s hope the sun’s bright idea wasn’t a huge flare to be hurled in our direction.

Kelly Oakes About the Author: Kelly Oakes has a master's in science communication and a physics degree, both from Imperial College London. Now she spends her days writing about science. Follow on Twitter @kahoakes.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. notscientific 4:29 am 08/29/2012

    What is particularly unnerving is that the sun can wipe us off just like that pretty much instantly which us being able to do anything about it :/

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  2. 2. vinodkumarsehgal 5:25 am 08/29/2012

    to Kelly Oakes

    Is there any link between CMEs and 11 yearly Sun Spot Cycle? Press release of NASA indicates that STeReO had observed one of the fastest CMEs on July 23, 2012 from some SPECIFIC location of earth. But sun spots are evenly distributed on Sun and not locations specific. Then what causes CMEs and how they erupt from some specific locations from Sun?

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  3. 3. Postman1 10:22 pm 08/30/2012

    Kelly, the reason it was the fastest on record is that the record only goes back to 2006, when STEREO was launched. Check your own link.
    Also, as anyone who follows the solar cycles should know, this is the quietest cycle in many decades. Please check the science and stick to it in your future articles.
    Grammar, spelling, technique are good, just work on substance.

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  4. 4. Kelly Oakes in reply to Kelly Oakes 4:40 am 08/31/2012

    vinodkumarsehgal, yes, there is a link. CMEs and flares tend to erupt from sunspots (as I understand it they can erupt outside of sunspots but these ones tend to be smaller).

    Postman1: I am aware that this is a quiet cycle, and that STEREO launched in 2006. I am not entirely sure what you are trying to get at. The science in my post is, as far as I’m aware, correct. See my BBC feature if you’d like more “substance”, but please don’t feel like you need to appraise my grammar, spelling and “technique” on that too.

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  5. 5. Postman1 4:10 pm 08/31/2012

    I was stating that the NASA article on STEREO stated that this was the fastest CME on record by the STEREO, and STEREO was launched in 2006. So the “record” only started during the lull between cycles, therefore the CME is only largest in comparison to the past six years. While technically true, six years of one cycle is not much of a record.

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  6. 6. Kelly Oakes in reply to Kelly Oakes 3:39 pm 09/5/2012

    Sorry, I didn’t make myself clear. I did understand that was what you meant (and it’s a fair point – I’ve updated the post to mention the launch date), but telling me to “check the science” was not needed if that was the only part you were referring to.

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  7. 7. Cosmoknot 3:23 am 10/9/2012

    Then Jupiter made some kind of a flash out of the left part of its body (from our viewing angle, anyway). Not immediately, but a couple weeks later.

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