Saturday, March 12, 2011

What exploded on the sun Thursday morning?

The eruption that occurred on the sun last week, February 24, was many times larger than Earth in scale and represented a tremendous release of energy. But what exactly happened? Here is a wide view of the event:

This type of event is called a prominence eruption. It occurs in the extended, hot outer atmosphere of the sun, called the corona. The material that appears to glow red is plasma, a mix of electrically charged hydrogen and helium.

OK, now let’s take a closer look. Here is a close-up view of the prominence:

The plasma is flowing along a tangled and twisted structure of magnetic fields generated by the sun’s internal dynamo. Prominences occur when such a structure becomes unstable and bursts outward, releasing plasma.

At Goddard, Holly Gilbert is one of the physicists trying to understand what triggers such explosive events. We have a pretty good idea of what prominence eruptions are, but less of a clear idea of what causes them.

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