5 Elegant Animations of the Sun’s Swirling Flares
published during a new moon.
06/06/2016

Sun’s Swirling Flares

Credit: NASA/Solar Dynamics Observatory

The sun is a majestic comrade. Behind its elegance, though, is some serious power — so much, in fact, that the sun can’t even contain itself and boils over.

NASA likens it to a rubber band: When the sun’s interior moves, it contorts its magnetic fields. When these fields snap back to form, they lob a huge amount of energy into the cosmos. The energy, which can create light, can be a solar flare. Here’s a peek at the tenacious tendrils from just this past week:

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Credit: Large Angle and Spectrometric Coronagraph Experiment (LASCO)/U.S. Naval Research Laboratory Solar and Heliospheric Observatory (NRL SOHO) team

The eruption can also be something even more intense: a coronal mass ejection (CME), which catapults billions of charged particles into space that weigh billions of tons. When those particles meet Earth’s oppositely oriented magnetic field, which repels space weather, they instigate geomagnetic storms. This is one of the fastest CMEs that’s ever been recorded, captured back in 2012:

Credit: NASA/Solar Terrestrial Relations Observatory-Ahead (STEREO-A)

The sun’s burbles are powerful enough that if they eke their way to our neck of the cosmic woods, they can interfere with global positioning systems and other communication signals — even ruin electronics. They can also generate otherworldly auroras. This is a flare from just last month, which reportedly cause a few radio blackouts:

Credit: NASA/SDO/Goddard

Though it’s a tremendous bout of radiation, it can’t galavant through the atmosphere and physically affect people on Earth. Astronauts, on the other hand, are actually classified as radiation workers because of their vulnerability.

But in 1859, Earth was hit with the biggest solar storm ever. Nicknamed the Carrington Event after the solar astronomer who witnessed the phenomenon, a report from National Geographic maintains if a similar megaflare were to occur now, our high-tech world would come to a scary halt. We’ve had CME near-misses, one as recently as 2012. It’s not as overtly headline-grabbing as a hurtling asteroid, but researchers have met with government officials and emergency planners to discuss the sun’s threats. Here’s the close shave:

 

Credit: NASA Goddard

Flares, on the other hand, are classified using letters. There’s A-class, which is the smallest, then B, C, M, and X. Each letter is a 10-fold increase in energy released, and within each letter, there are number assignments, too. So an X is ten times an M and 100 times a C, and M is where you start tinkering with radio blackouts at Earth’s poles. This is a recent X-class in action:

Credit: NASA/Solar Dynamics Observatory (SDO)/Atmospheric Imaging Assembly (AIA)

Though its eruptions take just eight minutes to reach us, some evidence shows that the sun was dimmer four billion years ago, meaning Earth could have been an ice ball. But a paper published this week points to solar flares as providing the energy critical to warming the planet and making complex molecules — a potent life-giving power that can just as swiftly change ours. The sun may have its magnetic outbursts, but without them, life on Earth wouldn’t have thrived.