Tag Archives: coronal mass ejection

A solar flare accompanied by a coronal mass ejection (CME) erupted from the sun on January 23rd 2012. Credit: NASA/SDO

Strongest geomagnetic storm this solar cycle sparks dazzling Northern Lights

A pair of coronal mass ejections (CMEs) emitted by the sun last Sunday have now triggered a severe geomagnetic storm around the globe. At first, only a mild geomagnetic storm was registered after the first wave hit our planet’s magnetosphere. Quickly, however, the storm has intensified to G4 status, or only one notch below  the highest level solar storm, according to the NOAA’s Space Weather Prediction Center. This is the most severe solar storm of the current solar cycle.

A solar flare accompanied by a coronal mass ejection (CME) erupted from the sun on January 23rd 2012. Credit: NASA/SDO

A solar flare accompanied by a coronal mass ejection (CME) erupted from the sun on January 23rd 2012. Credit: NASA/SDO

The amount of magnetic flux that rises up to the Sun’s surface varies with time in a cycle called the solar cycle. This cycle lasts 11 years on average, and during its maximum peak  major flares and CMEs are commonplace. This peak was predicted to have occurred in 2013, but this most recent event suggests that the solar cycle #24 is not over yet.

Coronal mass ejections are powerful eruptions near the surface of the sun driven by kinks in the solar magnetic field. When the sun burps, it does so with the strength of 20 million nuclear bombs, ejecting more than a billion tonnes of superheated gas. The resulting shocks ripple through the solar system and can interrupt satellites and power grids on Earth.

We’ve yet to receive any word from NOAA whether or not this G4 storm has caused any outage or satellite malfunction, but I wouldn’t be surprised if any is reported. It’s not all doom and gloom with geomagnetic storms. In fact, we have to thank for some of the most intense and beautiful weather spectacles on Earth: the aurora. Before sunrise, bright auroras were sighted over several northern-tier U.S. states, including Minnesota, Wisconsin, Montana, the Dakotas and Washington. According to Space Weather branch chief Brent Gordon, if the storm is to continue well until Tuesday afternoon, than Northern Lights could be sighted  as far south as the middle United States, even Tennessee and Oklahoma. That also means much of Russia and northern Europe, as far south as central Germany and Poland.


ison comet approaching the sun

Comet ISON offers a rare Thanksgiving sight with closest flyby to the sun

UPDATE: Telescopes saw the giant ball of ice and dust disappear behind the star, but then fail to emerge as expected. ISON is dead and gone, folks. Sorry.

The ISON comet, a giant icy cosmic body from deep space, may just become the most spectacular comet ever – if it lives past today’s Thanksgiving that is. Appropriately enough, NASA researchers have a roast of their own today as the comet is expected to make its closest flyby to the sun yet. If it survives the drift past the sun, it will go on to shine for months in the night’s sky where the comet will be visible with the naked eye. There’s a pretty solid chance the comet will get zapped too, transiting for possible spectacle of the century to a big pile of dust and gas. So, are you feeling lucky?

ison comet approaching the sun

ISON comet approaching the sun – a CME can also be seen. (c) NASA

This magnificent photo was taken in the very earlier hours of November 27, showing the sun at the very center. In the picture, called a coronagraph and recorded by the NASA Solar and Heliospheric Observatory, the sun’s bright light was blocked such that other structures around it could be seen. In the lower right-hand side you can see long and bright object followed by a trailing tail – that’s ISON. Wouldn’t you know it, the timing couldn’t had been any better, since the photo also caught a coronal mass ejection in full swing. The tremendous ejection of particles and energy can be seen in the upper right-hand side as a narrow black beam.

In just a couple of hours, comet ISON will be making its closest flyby to the sun, skimming just 730,000 miles above its surface. The event will take place precisely at 1:38 p.m. EST (1838 GMT), and like I said earlier, if the comet survives the flyby, it will live to become one of the most spectacular comets witnessed by mankind yet.

“This is really a critical time, arguably the most critical time, for Comet ISON,” said astrophysicist Karl Battams of the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory in Washington, D.C. “It is experiencing the most intense solar radiation and the most intense gravitational forces.”

ISON was discovered by a group of Russian astronomers in September 2012, but despite over a year of tracking and observations it’s still unclear whether or not the comet will survive disintegration. Some facts about ISON that we know fore sure: it’s a remnant from the solar system’s early days, being 4.5  billion years and originating from the Oort cloud region; currently, the comet is 1 mile wide and is made up of 2 billion tons of ice and dust, which it will gradually lose during its close encounters with the sun. If it survives the flyby, the comet will orbit back to the Oort cloud region from which in won’t ever come back, NASA researchers says, meaning this is a once in a lifetime opportunity – even for the whole of mankind.

From 1 p.m. to 3:30 p.m. EST (1800 to 2030 GMT) NASA will host a live Google Hangout discussing ISON and its progression as it comes closer and closer to the sun’s surface. You can watch it live here.

The question on everybody’s mind must be, “what are the odds of ISON surviving?” Well, it’s very hard to predict, but a NASA spokesman was quoted saying that there’s a 40% chance ISON will make it in one piece. What a Thanksgiving this will be!



A giant hole in the Sun [Marvelous PHOTO]


(c) NASA

If you’re a regular follower of NASA’s updates, you may have caught glimpses of some of the X-ray photos they report showing the surface of the sun. In these photos, dark specks of various sizes can be seen, which are actually what astronomers refer to as coronal holes. They may extend from the Sun’s equator to its poles, or even in some cases, from pole to pole. Recently, one of these coronal holes rotated towards Earth and chances had it that its one of the largest NASA astronomers have witnessed in a very long time. And what a sight it is!

Coronal holes aren’t your typical holes, mind you. A coronal hole, as the name implies, is a large region in the sun’s corona (the outer atmosphere of the sun), which is less dense and is cooler than its surrounds. This marvelous picture was taken by the Solar Dynamics Observatory’s Atmospheric Imaging Assembly, and was made by combining three wavelengths of UV light.

Are coronal holes dangerous? The short answer would be no. Coronal holes are the sources of solar wind gusts that travel through space and hit Earth’s magnetic field, causing marvelous spectacles of light called auroras. However, the same coronal holes spew solar gusts that cause geomagnetic storms, interfering with satellite communications. In general, geomagnetic storms originating from a coronal hole have a gradual commencement and are not as severe as storms caused by coronal mass ejections, which usually have a sudden onset.

Doomsday part 4: Solar flares


A solar flare will breach Earth’s magnetic field that typically shelters our planet’s surface from such hazards. The ensuing onslaught would fry all electronic devices in the world and cut power grids. Chaos would ubiquitously surface causing anarchy in a Mad Max type of scenario. New age prophets have for years labeled technology as the devil’s tool, along with money which is today almost exclusively controlled online, and its annihilation would signify humanity’s break from these shackles and the beginning of a new age. Other doomsday scenarios say that once with December 21 a huge solar flare would devastatingly hit Earth with radiation purging all life.

Reality check

Solar flares are indeed hazardous to technology. It’s not unheard of satellites that go offline, sometimes permanently, as a result of being hit by solar flares or coronal mass ejections triggered by the sun. A famous historical event, sure to be mentioned by doomsday promoters, is the 1989 Hydro-Québec’s electricity transmission system as a result of a severe electromagnetic storm. The huge energy fried the grid, and since it was still the Cold War, many people were engulfed in panic. Also at least 30 satellites, some of which were beyond repair.

Our sun works in 11 year cycles. Currently, we’re at the end of the sun’s cycle, with its peak scheduled around 2013 and 2014. Doomsday conspirators take advantage of this close proximity to induce panic by linking it to the end of the Mayan calendar. First of all, while high energy particles indeed hit Earth’s magnetic field, the damage is by no means harmful to humans, so the “radiation” scenario doesn’t apply from the get go.

NASA has reported that the current solar cycle is of average intensity, and shouldn’t be more damaging or harmless than the past cycles the sun went through. Again, the the peak of the solar cycle will occur in 2014, not at the end of 2012.

Read about other popular Mayan doomsday “prophecies” from our debunking series:

A massive coronal mass ejection. (c) Wikimedia Commons

Turbulence in space confirmed and measured for the first time

A massive coronal mass ejection. (c) Wikimedia Commons

A massive coronal mass ejection. (c) Wikimedia Commons

A rather frustrating issue for astronomers and astrophysicists is space turbulence. Like in the air, when for instance an airplane meets unfavorable jets of wind, so too a spacecraft or satellite can be jolted a bit by the high energy of gusty winds in space. What’s aggravating however is that while in the first case turbulence is an undeniable scientific fact, the later could not be confirmed until only recently. Imagine getting whacked in the head by an annoying glove, only the glove is invisible to both eyes, nose or touch. You’re positive it’s there, but can’t prove it. Scientists finally overcame this hurdle after they found a way to measure this hard-to-prove cosmic turbulence.

“Turbulence is not restricted to environments here on Earth, but also arises pervasively throughout the solar system and beyond, driving chaotic motions in the ionized gas, or plasma, that fills the universe,” says lead author Gregory Howes, assistant professor of physics and astronomy at the University of Iowa.

Turbulence in space is believed to have played a role in shaping our universe.

“It is thought to play a key role in heating the atmosphere of the sun, the solar corona, to temperatures of a million degrees Celsius, nearly a thousand times hotter than the surface of the sun,” says lead author of the study Gregory Howes, an assistant professor of physics and astronomy at the University of Iowa.

“Turbulence also regulates the formation of the stars throughout the galaxy, determines the radiation emitted from the super massive black hole at the center of our galaxy and mediates the effects that space weather has on the Earth.”

The main source of these cosmic turbulence are highly charge particle emissions spewed into space by the sun known as coronal mass ejections.  Plasma waves can measure millions of degrees in temperature, last for several hours and grow to sized several times that of the Earth. In space, turbulence is caused by Alfven waves, which are moving disturbances of the plasma and magnetic field.   Nonlinear interactions between Alfven waves traveling up and down the magnetic field – such as two magnetic waves colliding to create a third wave – are basically the building blocks that lead to cosmic turbulence and  Howes along with colleagues have proved this for the first time.

“We have presented the first experimental measurement in a laboratory plasma of the nonlinear interaction between counter-propagating Alfven waves, the fundamental building block of astrophysical turbulence,” Mr. Howes notes.

The study’s findings were published today in the online edition of the journal Physical Review Letters.


Solar plasma waves imaged with gradient filter turns science to fine art


This Friday, a solar eruption of spectacular proportions took place. The ensuing plasma wave, measuring millions of degrees in temperature, lasted for several hours, which is atypical for such events, and was several times the size of the Earth. It’s not the eruption’s sheer enormity that’s impressive, but it’s beauty as well, and for this very event, the NASA scientists seemingly turned into artists after applying gradient filters to their data. The end result … well, you’ll be the judge.


The eruption was caught in high-definition detail by the  Solar Dynamics Observatory, a spacecraft tasked with observing the sun through out its 11 year cycle. This particular event is called a solar prominence – charged solar plasma that appears to arc out away from the Sun’s edge, or limb. The path that a prominence follows is strictly limited by the sun’s magnetic fields, which guides and forms these marvelous arcs. By studying these phenomenae, astronomers can understand what’s happening with the sun’s complicated magnetic fields that can also power great eruptions on the sun such as the solar flares or coronal mass ejections.


One way to make things easier for scientists to observe these solar eruptions is by applying a gradient filter – much like in photography. A gradient, in mathematical terms, is used to highlight the places of greatest physical change in space. A gradient filter, on the other hand, enhances places of contrast, making them more visually obvious, and some time making up for some interesting effects. The one at hand turned out simply marvelous, as you can see for yourself in the video below.

To output this gem, however, was no ordinary task like slamming a filter in photoshop. A collaboration of experts have been working together for the past nine years to devise new and improved methods at Solar Information Processing workshops to focus on sharing state-of-the-art imaging techniques that can best further scientific research.

The faint oval hovering above the upper left limb of the sun in this picture is known as a coronal cavity. NASA’s Solar and Terrestrial Relations Observatory (STEREO) captured this image on Aug. 9, 2007. The cavity has been the object of the study for three separate studies.

Astronomers try to predict huge solar blasts by studying coronal cavities

From time to time, the sun projects billion-ton clouds of charged particles from its scorching surface, surrounded by a solar atmosphere scientists dub corona, into space. Sometimes, these blasts hit the Earth’s magnetic field with a high potential for wrecking havoc to satellites and  communications, and in extreme cases massive electrical power surges. It’s become a sort of priority, thus, for astronomers and other scientists from around the world to study and understand how these blasts form, in order to predict and minimize the damage they might cause.

The faint oval hovering above the upper left limb of the sun in this picture is known as a coronal cavity. NASA’s Solar and Terrestrial Relations Observatory (STEREO) captured this image on Aug. 9, 2007. The cavity has been the object of the study for three separate studies.

The faint oval hovering above the upper left limb of the sun in this picture is known as a coronal cavity. NASA’s Solar and Terrestrial Relations Observatory (STEREO) captured this image on Aug. 9, 2007. The cavity has been the object of the study for three separate studies.

So far, NASA scientists’ best bet lies on the mysterious cavities in the sun’s outer atmosphere, or corona. Captioned above is this sort of light bulb filament shaped occurrence. The bright structure around and above that light bulb is called a streamer, while the seemingly hollow interior is called a coronal prominence cavity. It’s believed the latter, these cavities, serve as solar launch pads for the huge clouds of hurled plasma known as coronal mass ejections or CMEs.

“We don’t really know what gets these CMEs going,” Terry Kucera, of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., said in a statement. “So we want to understand their structure before they even erupt, because then we might have a better clue about why it’s erupting and perhaps even get some advance warning on when they will erupt.”

And this is no easy task. Scientists have been studying one particular cavity as part of a series of paper studying its properties, the first two from 2010 and 2011 looked at the shape and density, respectively, and now the latest, published in Sep. 20 edition of The Astrophysical Journal, tackled temperature. By understanding these three aspects of the cavities scientists can better understand the space weather that can disrupt technologies near Earth. Especially during these rather gruesome times, as the sun comes near the end of its 11 year cycle in 2013, time at which CMEs will become more frequent and powerful.

Predicting a coronal mass ejection

Combined, the three studies have these so far to tell – the structure is similar to a croissant, while the inside is filled with a sort of magnetically charged tube, which is the prime driver for its shape. The cavity appears to be about 30 percent less dense than the material surrounding it, and its average temperatures range from 2.5 million to 3 million degrees Fahrenheit (1.4 million to 1.7 degrees Celsius), increasing with distance from the solar surface.

Concerning the latest study from the series, which discuss temperature, the scientists found that the temperature in cavities isn’t all that different form the rest of the matter in the corona, however its a lot more variable. Hopefully with enough data and scientific wisdom, the astronomers can crack down on the code and sequence of events that trigger a CME.

“Our point with all of these research projects into what might seem like side streets, is ultimately to figure out the physics of magnetic fields in the corona,” said Sarah Gibson, a solar scientist at the High Altitude Observatory at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colo.
“Sometimes these cavities can be stable for days and weeks, but then suddenly erupt into a CME,” added Gibson, who is a co-author on all three studies. “We want to understand how that happens. We’re accessing so much data, so it’s an exciting time — with all these observations, our understanding is coming together to form a consistent story.”

False-color image of the recently erupted, powerful X-class solar flare, whose corronal mass ejection is expected to reach Earth's magnetic field this Saturday morning. (c) NASA

Powerful solar flare headed our way set to spark beautiful Northern Lights

False-color image of the recently erupted, powerful X-class solar flare, whose corronal mass ejection is expected to reach Earth's magnetic field this Saturday morning. (c) NASA

False-color image of the recently erupted, powerful X-class solar flare, whose corronal mass ejection is expected to reach Earth’s magnetic field this Saturday morning. (c) NASA

Astronomers have surprised a blast of charged solar particles erupting from a massive solarspot, recently. The unleashed X-class solar flare is expected to reach Earth’s magnetic field on Saturday morning (2:52 p.m. EDT). Scientists warrant that there’s a chance temporary disruptions to GPS signals, radio communications and power grids might occur. Of greater interest for most of us though, is the consequent magnificent display of Northern Lights, slated to extend as far as far south as California and Alabama.

In 2013 the sun will approach the end of its eleven year cycle, which is always followed by X-class solar flares, which might cause communication disruptions as they hit vulnerable satellites. This recent major X-class solar flare serves as an appetizer.

[HOW aurora borealis (Northern Lights) form – VIDEO]

Superflares (white) and sunspots (dark). (c) Kyoto University

Superflares 10,000 times more powerful than those in our solar system, observed on sun-like stars

Some stars, most often during their early life, exhibit an intense and energetic behavior, much greater than that of our own sun, despite a similar size, per say. In the first survey of its kind, scientists at Kyoto University have analyzed sun flares erupting on the surface of distant stars through out our galaxy. They found that some solar flares were even 10,000 times more powerful than those shot by the sun.

Superflares (white) and sunspots (dark). (c) Kyoto University

Superflares (white) and sunspots (dark). (c) Kyoto University

Just a few days ago, I wrote a bit on how solar flares and coronal mass ejections occur, and the impacts they might have on the Earth. The biggest concern involves electrical flooding of the grid after highly charged CMEs hit the Earth, which might cause severe damage to power lines, communication and GPS satellites and just about anything electronic; even if its unplugged (!). The largest recorded solar flare event occurred on  1 September 1859, and chance had it that British astronomer Richard Carrington was observing the sun right at the eruption moment, noting a great brightness as he was drawing sunspots for his sketches. Just hours later, when the eruption finally hit Earth, telegraph lines went down and flashed sparks even though batteries were disconnected. However, this paled in oddity compared to the massive aurora borealis which extended as far as the tropic at the event! It must had been a massive sun flare indeed, but considering the first electrically light city was still at least 20 years away, beyond the big scare and slew of superstitions unleashed, the event didn’t affect the life of human society at the time.

Were the Carrington event to happen today, things would’ve been a lot different. Imagine a world thrown in complete and utter pitch black darkness. Chaos. Now, imagine an event 10,000 times more powerful.

Some, maybe even more powerful, were observed by the Japanese scientists which analyzed four months worth of data delivered by the Kepler Telescope, directed towards a certain patch in the sky. The telescope’s main role is that of studying the slight shifts in brightness of stars, which might correspond to the moment an orbiting planet is passing in front of the sun, facing the observer. When you’ve got your “eye” right on the stars, it’s a pity actually not to dwell further deep and see what goes around beyond potentially orbiting exoplanets.

The Kyoto based researchers found that out of 83,000 stars of the same type as the Sun, 148 (about 0.2%) had superflares with energies between 10 and 10,000 times greater than the Carrington event. Most of the massive sun flares occurred on star which have a short period of ration, generally just 10 days, compared to a month required by the sun to  make a complete revolution around its axis. Because these stars spin faster, they have more magnetic energy to burn, translating in more powerful eruptions.

Back to the Earth and massive solar flare hypothesis; a solar flare 10,000 times more powerful than those we’re currently experiencing nowadays would mean total annihilation of all life on Earth, instantly. The O-zone layer would simply shred to pieces, leaving way for massive amounts of radiation. But would the sun ever be capable of generating such an eruption. Scientists believe such an event is highly unlikely. All the massive solar flares were joined by giant sun spots, as well, a connection known for some time by scientists; these solar spots are a lot bigger than those usually surfaced on the sun. It still can fry all of our global electronics, though.

The findings were published in the journal Nature.



NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory spacecraft captured this photo recently showing massive sunspot groups on the sun's surface

Huge sunspots the size of the Earth warns of potential massive solar storms

NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory spacecraft captured this photo recently showing massive sunspot groups on the sun's surface

NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory spacecraft captured this photo recently showing massive sunspot groups on the sun's surface

Astronomers have observed a huge sunspot group on the surface of the sun, sized at more than 60,000 miles across, which might outbreak in a potentially hazardous solar storm.

From time to time, the sun spews huge energy releases called solar flares, which depending on their magnitude (the weakest are “C” class and the most powerful are “X” class) can cause radio blackouts and irremediable damage to satellites. Powerful sun flares are sometimes, however, joined by coronal mass ejections (CMEs) that cause geomagnetic storms on Earth. CMEs are what cause the beautiful northern and southern lights, or auroras, but they can also inflict catastrophic events. Coronal mass ejections are caused when the magnetic field in the sun’s atmosphere gets disrupted and then the plasma, the sun’s hot ionized gas, erupts and send charged particles into space.

If the geomagnetic storm caused by the CMEs is big enough, it can cause a damaging extra electrical current to flow through the grid. Some of you might remember the 1989 Quebec incident, when the whole city was blackout after the entire grid got fried, causing an estimate $2 billion Canadian in damage at the time. Besides blackouts, CMEs can also disrupt GPS signals and radio telecommunications.

Both CMEs and sun flares most often sprout from active regions around sunspots.

AR 1476, the huge sunspot complex I’ve mentioned earlier, might just be a birthplace for havoc. Another sunspot group, albeit smaller, called AR 1471, already erupted Monday evening with a M1 flare – one of the least powerful.

“With at least four dark cores larger than Earth, AR 1476 sprawls more than 100,000 km from end to end, and makes an easy target for backyard solar telescopes,” the website Spaceweather.com reported Monday.

The sun’s activity naturally lowers and increases in its 11-year cycle – towards the end of the cycle, like it’s the case currently, the sun is most active. The current cycle, known as  Solar Cycle 24, is set to peak in 2013.

solar flare

Solar flare heading our way – to hit the Earth on Saturday

solar flare The sun recently shout out an M3.2-class solar flare in our direction, which scientists expect to hit the Earth this Saturday. The coronal mass ejection however is too weak to cause any havoc like doomsday fanatics might hope, just an incredible “fireworks” display as the charged particles hit the Earth’s magnetic field resulting in spectacular aurora borealis at the poles. Your toaster is safe, do no threat.

All the same, people in charge of power grids all over the world will be studying the event. In 2013 the sun will approach the end of its eleven year cycle, which is always followed by X-class solar flares, which might cause communication disruptions as they hit vulnerable satellites.

If you’re a northern resident and happen to catch a few great shots this Saturday, don’t hesitate to send some gems our way.