The Sun Spits Out a Coronal Mass Ejection

by Nancy Atkinson on April 16, 2012

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Ever squirted water out of your mouth when playing in a swimming pool or lake? This Coronal Mass Ejection (CME) release by the Sun on April 15, 2012 looks reminiscent of such water spouting. But this burst of solar plasma being hurled from the eastern limb of the Sun is more like an explosion, as such CMEs can release up to 100 billion kg (220 billion lb) of material, and the speed of the ejection can reach 1000 km/second (2 million mph) in some flares. Scientists at the Solar Dynamics Observatory say some of the explosions approach the power in one billion hydrogen bombs! In this video, the Sun hurled a cloud of plasma towards the STEREO B spacecraft and SDO captured the event in a couple of different wavelengths.

Coronal Mass Ejections (CMEs) are balloon-shaped bursts of solar wind rising above the solar corona, expanding as they climb. Solar plasma is heated to tens of millions of degrees, and electrons, protons, and heavy nuclei are accelerated to near the speed of light. The super-heated electrons from CMEs move along the magnetic field lines faster than the solar wind can flow. Rearrangement of the magnetic field, and solar flares may result in the formation of a shock that accelerates particles ahead of the CME loop.

A CME from the Sun on April 15, 2012. Credit: Solar Dynamics Observatory

About 

Nancy Atkinson is Universe Today's Senior Editor. She also works with Astronomy Cast, and is a NASA/JPL Solar System Ambassador.

bugzzz April 16, 2012 at 8:07 PM

amazing stuff. still hard to believe that sucker will burn another 5 billion years.

Dima R April 16, 2012 at 8:38 PM

Is it only me who thinks that humans will eventually find a way to modify/restore the sun and the solar system to our needs, until the time itself collapses, and even then…

Tony Power April 17, 2012 at 10:20 AM

Why would we bother? If we reach a stage where we have the ability to replenish the sun’s fuel, we would also have the ability to just pick up and move to a new solar system. The only reason to replenish the sun would be purely as a souvenir. Another snow globe over the mantle. Also we need to ask whether the world would be worth saving.

Also again, if we had the ability to replenish the sun, it would stand to reason that we could also build an engine powerful enough to change the orbit of the earth. We could accelerate the planet to move its orbit out further to avoid the growing sun and eventually eject the planet from what would soon be just another planetary nebula. The power sources we would have at this time will be sufficient to sustain us until we are able to insert the planet into orbit around another star system.

squidgeny April 18, 2012 at 11:55 AM

Besides, the only way to “replenish the Sun” in a way that keeps it in its current condition would be to pump it up with more hydrogen. There’s not much of that going around, given that the Sun already accounts for over 99% of the Solar System’s mass.

zkank April 18, 2012 at 3:12 PM

You wrote: “There’s not much of that [hydrogen] going around”

It’s the most abundant element in the universe! There’s LOTS of it going around!

zkank April 17, 2012 at 3:17 PM

The average lifespan for a mammal species is only about one million years to extinction.
Worrying about the sun is moot, human.
You’ll long be a fossil, (or a tank of gas for our replacement species).

squidgeny April 18, 2012 at 11:57 AM

In fairness though, that average applies to mammals that haven’t developed intelligence ;) Intelligence could easily be a wildcard that delays (or even brings forward) our otherwise ‘predictable-by-averages’ extinction

zkank April 18, 2012 at 3:10 PM

You wrote: “In fairness though, that average applies to mammals that haven’t developed intelligence”

Where are you getting that information from?!

zkank April 18, 2012 at 3:10 PM

You wrote: “In fairness though, that average applies to mammals that haven’t developed intelligence”

Where are you getting that information from?!

bugzzz April 18, 2012 at 8:07 PM

We’re at a weird point in history. It remains to be seen if humans will merge with their technology, be outrun & abandoned by their technology (artificial intelligence), or destroyed by tech. It seems to me all roads lead to a future of inorganic intelligences filling the universe.

Law Referral Connect April 16, 2012 at 10:41 PM

Wow. The sun’s energy is very strong.

squidgeny April 19, 2012 at 11:48 AM

Right, but most of it’s already in stars – which would be useless for replenishing the Sun.

squidgeny April 19, 2012 at 11:50 AM

Well, we’re the only mammal with intelligence (where I’m defining intelligence as the ability to consider and deliberately influence a species’ lifetime) and we haven’t gone extinct yet, so we can’t be included in the statistics.

The average of 1m years can only be worked out from species that have already gone extinct – those alive today don’t affect the figure.

zkank April 19, 2012 at 2:05 PM

You’re trying to make a square peg fit in a round hole.
We haven’t gone extinct yet because we have been in existence for only ~200 – 250, 000 years (depending on who’s numbers you want to use).
One-quarter the way done; the clock is ticking.

Assuming that because we’re “intelligent” we’re beyond Mother Nature’s grasp is a bit self-important and without support.

Of course you can’t use mammals which are alive today as part of the statistic – they’re not extinct yet! (You were kidding, right?)

zkank April 19, 2012 at 2:30 PM

Because stars are mostly made up of hydrogen, it doesn’t mean most of the hydrogen is found in stars!
Hydrogen is literally everywhere!
Galactic haze, suspected by some to be in an alternate form to make up a considerable amount of dark matter, and even the interstellar medium isn’t without hydrogen.

squidgeny April 19, 2012 at 8:02 PM

I did a quick calculation. I can show the method but for now I’ll just post the result: every 5 minutes, the Sun burns the same amount of hydrogen that could be found in a volume of interstellar medium equal to that of the solar system, all the way out to Uranus.

So if we really wanted to replenish the sun, we’d have to sweep up that size of interstellar medium and inject it into the Sun – and we’d have to do it every five minutes. Given that it takes 8 minutes at the speed of light just to get from Earth to the Sun, it’s literally an impossible task.

squidgeny April 19, 2012 at 8:05 PM

What I mean is, we have the foresight (and maybe one day, the political will) to stave off some existential threats should they arise – thus prolonging our existence over the average. Other mammals have never had that.

zkank April 19, 2012 at 8:42 PM

Now you’re getting a bit silly and digressing, my friend.
I wasn’t arguing that replenishing the sun was a viable option, I was responding to your comment that there “wasn’t much hydrogen around”…which there is.
Both replenishing the sun and rocketing the Earth to a more vibrant sun are ridiculous beyond even a decent Sci-Fi novel!

zkank April 19, 2012 at 9:44 PM

You hope!
Don’t forget that we didn’t get to this evolved level because of our superiority among species in any way.
If it wasn’t for the cheat help from a fateful comet/asteroid, we’d possibly have stagnated at Level Snack for the dinosaurs, since mammals were just like rats in the jungle at that time.
…which that event brings this discussion back on topic of astronomy ;)

squidgeny April 20, 2012 at 10:48 AM

I should have added to that comment “…that we can grab to replenish the Sun” – because that was the topic I was addressing.

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