This is a question we are often asked: what is the difference between a coronal mass ejection (CME) and a solar flare? We discussed it in a recent astrophoto post, but today NASA put out a video with amazing graphics that explains it — and visualizes it — extremely well.
“CMEs and solar flares are both explosions that occur on the Sun,” the folks at NASA’s Goddard Spaceflight Center’s Scientific Visualization Studio explain. “Sometimes they occur together, but they are not the same thing.”
CMEs are giant clouds of particles from the Sun hurled out into space, while flares are flashes of light — occurring in various wavelengths — on the Sun.
With a watchful NASA spacecraft capturing its moves, the Sun sent off a “mid-level” solar flare on Tuesday (July 8) that you can watch (over and over again) in the video above. The Solar Dynamics Observatory caught the explosion around 12:20 p.m. EDT (4:20 p.m. UTC), which led into a coronal mass ejection that sent a surge of solar material into space.
Solar flares can be disruptive to Earth communications and also cause auroras in the atmosphere. In this case, the M6 solar flare created “short-lived impacts to high frequency radio communications on the sunlit side of Earth … as a result,” wrote the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in a forecast July 8.
In this case, however, the coronal mass ejection (seen by the Solar Dynamics Observatory) is not expected to hit Earth. But with the Sun around its maximum of solar activity in the 11-year cycle, other eruptions could head into space in the coming days. M is considered a moderate flare and X the strongest kind.
“Solar activity is low, but the quiet is unlikely to persist,” wrote SpaceWeather.com in an update published today (July 10). “There are three sunspots with unstable magnetic fields capable of strong eruptions: AR2108, AR2109, AR2113. NOAA forecasters estimate a 75% chance of M-flares and 15% chance of X-flares on July 10th.”
This flare caused a surge in shortwave activity that you can hear in this audio file, recorded by New Mexico amateur astronomer Thomas Ashcraft. “Radio bursts such as these are sparked by shock waves moving through the sun’s atmosphere,” SpaceWeather added. “Set in motion by flares, these shock waves excite plasma instabilitties that emit static-y radio waves.”
If you sit at a fairly high latitude, you may want to keep an eye out your window Tuesday (April 1) and Wednesday. A powerful X-1 class flare erupted from the sun on Saturday (March 29), sparking an active space weather forecast from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
The solar flare erupted from sunspot AR2017 and happened to be aimed at the right direction to bring material to Earth. The associated coronal mass ejections (CMEs) will send streams of particles towards our planet, which could get pulled towards the poles and cause light shows as they interact with molecules in the upper atmosphere.
“NOAA forecasters estimate a 35 percent to 60 percent chance of polar geomagnetic storms on April 1-2 when at least three CMEs are expected to deliver glancing blows to Earth’s magnetic field,” SpaceWeather.com wrote. “The best-guess forecast calls for minor G1-class storms. High-latitude sky watchers should be alert for auroras.”
At the top of this story, you can view a video of the flare from the Solar Dynamics Observatory, a NASA satellite launched in 2010 to observe the sun’s activity. This not only has applications for aurora watchers, but also for those people concerned about the effect CMEs have on Earth’s satellites, power lines and other sensitive infrastructure.
Below is an older picture from the Solar and Heliospheric Observatory, a joint NASA and European Space Agency mission that also keeps an eye on solar activity. The sun has an 11-year cycle of solar activity, and you can see peak year 2001 at the front of the image along with quieter years 1996 and 2006 near the back. The year 2014 is just off the peak for this solar cycle.
I’m writing this at 1:30 a.m. running on what’s powering the sky over northern Minnesota right now – auroral energy. Even at this hour, rays are still sprouting in the southern sky and the entire north is milky blue-white with aurora borealis. Frankly, it’s almost impossible to resist going out again for another look.
Now updated with additional images.
The arrival of a powerful solar wind in excess of 375 miles per second (600 km/second) from a coronal mass ejection shocked the Earth’s magnetic sheath last night beginning around 9 p.m. CDT. The sun’s magnetic field, embedded in the wind, pointed sharply southward, allowing eager electrons and protons to worm their way past our magnetic defenses and excite the atoms in the upper atmosphere to glow. Voila! Northern lights.
Sure, it started innocently enough. A little glow low in the northern sky. But within half an hour the aurora had intensified into a dense bar of light so and green and bright it cast shadows. This bar or swath grew and grew like some atomic amoeba until it swelled beyond the zenith into the southern sky. Meanwhile, an isolated patch of aurora glowed like an green ember beneath the Pleiades in the northeastern sky. The camera captured its eerie appearance as well as spectacular curtains of red aurora dancing above the dipper-shaped cluster.
Soft patches, oval glows and multiple arcs lit up the north, east and west, but in the first two hours of the display I never saw a ray or feature with any definition. The camera recorded a few but all was diffuse and pillowy to the eye. Rays finally made their appearance later – after midnight and later – when they massed and surged to the zenith and beyond.
Then came the flickering, flame-like patches and snaky shapes writhing lifelike across the constellation Pegasus during the phase called the coronal aurora. That’s when all the curtains and rays gather around the local magnetic zenith. As they flicker and flame, their shapes transform into eagle wings and snakes wriggling across the stars.
Funny, the space weather forecast called for quiet conditions last night and for the next two nights. But the eruption of a large filament, a tubelike region of dense hydrogen gas held aloft in the sun’s atmosphere by magnetic fields, sent a bundle of subatomic joy in Earth’s direction a bit earlier than expected. More auroras are possible tonight and tomorrow night as the effect of the shock wave continues. Despite the U.S. government shutdown, the Space Weather Prediction Center remains open.
There are so many ways to appreciate the aurora but my favorite is simply to stand there dumbfounded and try to take it all in. Few phenomena in nature are more deeply moving.
UPDATE: Other astrophotographers in the US also were able to capture some aurora images. John Chumack, whose images we frequently feature here on UT got this shot early on the morning of October 2:
And Alan Dyer in Canada got this amazing “fiery” shot:
This timelapse from Arthur, Ontario was shot on Oct. 2 as well:
Do you feel like you’re in the firing gallery? These sunspots are practically square-on to Earth right now. Although they haven’t shown much sign of erupting, if they did our planet would be right in the line of fire if a flare or stream of solar particles erupted.
These groups (known as 1785 and 1787) are so big that they are easily visible in amateur telescopes. 1785 alone is more than 11 Earth-diameters across, according to SpaceWeather.com! Just make sure you have the proper solar filters in place before you gaze at these dark smudges.
“Sunspots” — so called because they appear as dark smudges on the face of the sun — are areas of intense magnetic activity on the sun (thousands of times stronger than that of Earth’s magnetic field.)
At times, these regions can get so intense that the energy builds up and releases in the form of a flare and/or a coronal mass ejection — a burst of gas and magnetism that hurls solar material away from the sun.
If these flares hit the area of the Earth, a bunch of things can happen. Particles can flow along Earth’s magnetic lines and lead to the creation of aurora, or Northern/Southern lights. (Here’s an aurora that happened in June.) More severe storms can short out satellites or disable power lines.
“Could it be the calm before the storm?” SpaceWeather.com asked on its homepage, before giving forecasts of strong types of flares: “NOAA forecasters estimate a 55% chance of M-flares and a 10% chance of X-flares on July 8.”
We’ll keep our eyes peeled and let you know if something interesting happens. In the meantime, these pictures came from Universe Today readers, and we’d love to see your images, too! Feel free to add your snapshots to our Flickr page.
Update, 2:39 EDT: Among the pictures in our Flickr pool is this new stunner below from Ron Cottrell of Oro Valley, Arizona. “These sunspots are so magnificent that I get striking detail with my small 40mm Hydrogen-alpha telescope,” he wrote us.
NASA took the precautionary measure because ‘a big coronal mass ejection’ was predicted to hit Mars over the next few days starting March 7, or Martian Sol 207 of the mission, researchers said.
The rover team wants to avoid a repeat of the computer memory glitch that afflicted Curiosity last week, and caused the rover to enter a protective ‘safe mode’.
“The rover was commanded to go to sleep,” says science team member Ken Herkenhoff of the US Geological Survey (USGS).
“Space weather can by nasty!”
This is the 2nd shutdown of the 1 ton robot in a week. Curiosity had just been returned to active status over the weekend.
A full resumption of science operations had been anticipated for next week, but is now on hold pending the outcome of effects from the solar storm explosions.
“We are making good progress in the recovery,” said Mars Science Laboratory Project Manager Richard Cook, of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, prior to the new solar flare.
“Storm’s a-comin’! There’s a solar storm heading for Mars. I’m going back to sleep to weather it out,” tweeted Curiosity.
Solar flares cause intense bursts of radiation that can damage spacecraft and also harm space faring astronauts, and require the installation of radiation shielding and hardening on space based assets.
Since Mars lacks a magnetic field, the surface is virtually unprotected from constant bombardment by radiation.
NASA’s other spacecraft exploring Mars were unaffected by the solar eruptions – including the long lived Opportunity rover and the orbiters; Mars Odyssey & Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter.
Eventually, the six-wheeled mega rover will set off on a nearly year long trek to her main destination – the sedimentary layers of the lower reaches of the 3 mile (5 km) high mountain named Mount Sharp – some 6 miles (10 km) away.
So far Curiosity has snapped over 48,000 images and traveled nearly 0.5 miles.
Curiosity’s goal is to assess whether the Gale Crater area on Mars ever offered a habitable zone conducive for Martian microbial life, past or present.
While you can’t exactly call Joe Brimacombe an amateur astrophotographer, he’s managed to capture an elusive solar event on film… a coronal mass ejection!
A huge, conical-shaped magnetic prominence had been lingering for days and calling attention to itself. On the morning of October 13, 2011 – it delivered.
According to SpaceWeather, much of the prominence fell back to the solar surface, but some of the structure did fly into space, producing a coronal mass ejection. SOHO coronagraphs of the CME show that it is propagating up and out of the plane of the solar system and chances are good that no planet will be hit by the expanding cloud.
But that’s professional instruments! Imagine the excitement between 0200 and 0345 UT at Coral Towers Observatory when Joe was using either a Takahashi Sky 90 or Astrophysics 130 telescope to capture the action! Both telescopes operate at a focal ratio of F/5 and he was using a Coronado Solar Filter and various Skynyx cameras.
Doing what space telescopes do!
Many thanks to Joe Brimacombe for sharing his work – and passion – with us!