Doesn’t this look just like one of those over the top, somebody-let-their-imagination-get-away-from-them fantasy space paintings?
Just goes to show that whatever we can imagine, the universe can probably do it better. This is a photograph of a coronal mass ejection, or CME, that took place on 31 August. A CME is when a bunch of solar material (read: freaking hot gases laced with magnetic field lines) is burped up by the Sun and sent flying away at ludicrous speeds — in this particular instance, 1,450 kilometers per second (900 miles per second). If a CME bumps into the Earth’s magnetic field, photographers rush to high, dark places and wait for the glorious aurora show to start.
Photographers working with NASA’s Solar Dynamic Observatory don’t have to wait for their shows, because they’re looking right at the Sun when it blows out a CME. In fact, they were looking at it earlier, when the huge solar filament was hanging suspended in the Sun’s corona, threatening to go. The actual CME is a multi-hour event, so it can be “filmed” by joining consecutive photos into a time-lapse movie.
NASA has posted the movie for your viewing enjoyment, or general geekification. What blows my mind is just how much of the Sun’s surface is affected by one of these.
Since I’m all about perspective and scale, I was delighted with this image, which superimposes our tiny little planet on the scene so we can see just how massive a CME is.
But the best part is NASA’s caption, which reads:
Note: the Earth is not this close to the sun, this image is for scale purposes only.
On the other hand, if the Earth really were that close to the sun, photographers wouldn’t have to wait four whole days for that aurora show.
(Click the images to embiggen, or go to NASA’s site for direct downloads of these and several others.)