A coronal mass ejection (CME) erupted from the sun this winter and NASA captured it on video.
The solar event took place on January 31, according to NASA, and was recorded by Solar Terrestrial Relations Observatory and ESA/NASA’s Solar and Heliospheric Observator. The CME burst from the sun at an average speed of 575 miles per second — historically, CMEs at this speed are mild, according to the U.S.-based space agency.
A CME is an event characterized by eruption of solar material. The strong magnetic fields of the corona — the outer solar atmosphere — can become closed, often above groups of sunspots. These confined areas can violently release gas and magnetic fields, resulting in massive CMEs. Larger CME explosions can push billions of tons of matter into space, which can strike spacecraft and Earth’s magnetic field, resulting in stunning auroras.
Don’t let the bright fiery flash fool you: CMEs should not be confused with solar flares. While solar flares are intense bursts of radiation after magnetic energy is released, CMES are characterized by the release of matter, not radiation, and can send solar particles into space that can reach Earth between one and three days later. CMEs and solar flares are sometimes related phenomena, but CMEs can occur independently of the sun’s radiation bursts.
If CMEs do reach Earth they can create a weather phenomenon known as a geomagnetic storm. While electrical systems or communication systems on Earth are usually unhindered, the CMEs can connect with the Earth’s magnetosphere (the outside of the Earth’s magnetic envelope) for a time. This prolonged connection can cause colorful auroras in the sky near the magnetic North and South poles.
The January CME is not the only one recently recorded, according to NASA. A CME was recorded in July of last year as well, one that gives scientists new insight on their formation. The summer CME was preceded by the formation of a flux rope, an event previously only theorized to cause other solar events like CMEs.
A flux rope occurs when magnetic field lines of the corona twist and turn. This created plasma, the hottest solar material, which began to emit an immense, spectacular glow this past July. The Atmospheric Imaging Assembly, with assistance from NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory, was able to capture images of the unique solar event. Scientists observed the formation of the flux rope for the first time, which hours later caused a CME solar event after the flux rope broke off from the sun and the magnetic fields burst into space.
The latest CME come as the sun is set to peak in its 13-year cycle. A number of studies released over the past several years have attempted to predict just how destructive CMEs are to Earth and our technology-based economy. At over 1.4 million kilometers (869,919 miles) wide, the sun contains 99.86 percent of the mass of the entire solar system: well over a million Earths could fit inside its bulk. The total energy radiated by the Sun averages 383 billion trillion kilowatts, the equivalent of the energy generated by 100 billion tons of TNT exploding each and every second.
Watch the video: