Gigantic Solar Flare Carves a ‘Canyon of Fire’ Into the Sun

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Good news for those who love the Northern Lights: Earth is directly in the line of fire of the sun’s latest coronal mass ejection (CME, or solar flare). But this is no ordinary solar storm. When this CME broke loose, the monumental forces tore open a twelve-thousand-mile-deep scar in the sun.

‘Canyon of Fire’

The sun’s magnetic field is complex and non-uniform. Its internal dynamo stirs up ropes and pools of plasma, twisting and flowing around one another beneath the surface. But sometimes, the magnetic forces get too much for the “surface tension” to handle. When that happens, field lines snap into a lowest-energy configuration, and usually some plasma gets blasted into space, creating a CME. That’s what happened here, according to Dr. Tony Phillips, who runs SpaceWeather.

“Magnetic filaments are plasma-filled tubes of magnetism that meander through the sun’s atmosphere,” said Dr. Phillips. “They easily become unstable and erupt, hurling fragments of themselves into space.”

When this particular filament let go, it left a “canyon of fire” twelve thousand miles deep — and more than ten times as long. Here’s a close-up, courtesy of NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory:

A solar flare gouged a twelve-thousand-mile-deep "canyon of fire" in the surface of the Sun.

Image credit: NASA/SDO/Space Weather

NASA astronomers predict that we’ll continue to see effects from the CME until April 9. Despite its dramatic entrance, the solar flare should be relatively gentle on our infrastructure. Even so, we can expect a few nights of extra-strong polar lights.

Stellar Dynamics

The sun is currently in the opening strains of its eleven-year solar activity cycle. Sunspots will develop and solar flares will become more and more intense until they peak around 2025.

“Harmful radiation from a flare cannot pass through Earth’s atmosphere to physically affect humans on the ground,” said NASA in a statement about last autumn’s X1 class flare. This flare is nowhere near that magnitude. “However — when intense enough — they can disturb the atmosphere in the layer where GPS and communications signals travel.”

NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory will be there to observe them all from its high geosynchronous orbit. But we’ve got more eyes in the sky: the Solar Orbiter, a joint project of NASA and the ESA, will be in a prime position to observe all this solar activity. At its closest approach, the orbiter will fly within 26 million miles of the sun.

To see what the sun is up to right now, check out NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory.

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