The Sun is Mellow Yellow Today. Billions of Years Ago? Not So Much

Planetary formation theory has been undergoing a lot of changes recently, with an ever expanding litany of events that can potentially impact it.  Everything from gravity to magnetic fields seems to impact this complex process.  Now scientists want to add another confounding factor – massive solar flares thousands of times more powerful than the most powerful we have ever observed from the Sun.

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Weekly Space Hangout: March 18, 2020 – Dr. Meng Jin and Modeling Coronal Mass Ejections

Hosts: Fraser Cain ( / @fcain)

Beth Johnson (@planetarypan)

Moiya McTier ( / @GoAstroMo)

Dr. Brian Koberlein ( / @BrianKoberlein)

This week we are pleased to welcome Dr. Meng Jin, Research Scientist at the SETI Institute, to the Weekly Space Hangout. Meng uses numerical modeling techniques to analyze Coronal Mass Ejections (CMEs) and related events [e.g., CME-Driven Shocks and Solar Energetic Particles (SEPs).]

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Destructive Super Solar Storms Hit Us Every 25 Years Or So

Solar storms powerful enough to wreak havoc on electronic equipment strike Earth every 25 years, according to a new study. And less powerful—yet still dangerous—storms occur every three years or so. This conclusion comes from a team of scientists from the the University of Warwick and the British Antarctic Survey.

These powerful storms can disrupt electronic equipment, including communication equipment, aviation equipment, power grids, and satellites.

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Power Grids and Satellites Are More at Risk from Extreme Solar Storms Than We Thought

Exactly how dangerous are solar storms? Scientists think the Carrington Event was one of the most powerful ones to ever hit Earth. They also think that storms that powerful only happen every couple centuries or so. But a new study says we can expect more storms equally as strong, and more often.

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The Sun is Actually One of the Most Difficult Places to Reach in the Solar System. Here’s how the Parker Solar Probe Will Do It

When it comes to exploring our Solar System, there are few missions more ambitious than those that seek to study the Sun. While NASA and other space agencies have been observing the Sun for decades, the majority of these missions were conducted in orbit around Earth. To date, the closest any mission has ever come to the Sun was with the Helios 1 and 2 probes, which studied the Sun during the 1970s from inside of Mercury’s orbit at perihelion.

NASA intends to change all that with the Parker Solar Probe, the space probe that recently launched from Cape Canaveral, which will revolutionize our understanding of the Sun by entering its atmosphere (aka. the corona). Over the next seven years, the probe will use Venus’ gravity to conduct a series of slingshots that will gradually bring it closer to the Sun than any mission in the history of spaceflight!

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Watch the Sun to Know When We’re Going to Have Killer Auroras

To the naked eye, the Sun puts out energy in a continual, steady state, unchanged through human history. (Don’t look at the sun with your naked eye!) But telescopes tuned to different parts of the electromagnetic spectrum reveal the Sun’s true nature: A shifting, dynamic ball of plasma with a turbulent life. And that dynamic, magnetic turbulence creates space weather.

Space weather is mostly invisible to us, but the part we can see is one of nature’s most stunning displays, the auroras. The aurora’s are triggered when energetic material from the Sun slams into the Earth’s magnetic field. The result is the shimmering, shifting bands of color seen at northern and southern latitudes, also known as the northern and southern lights.

This image of the northern lights over Canada was taken by a crew member on board the ISS in Sept. 2017. Image: NASA

There are two things that can cause auroras, but both start with the Sun. The first involves solar flares. Highly-active regions on the Sun’s surface produce more solar flares, which are sudden, localized increase in the Sun’s brightness. Often, but not always, a solar flare is coupled with a coronal mass ejection (CME).

A coronal mass ejection is a discharge of matter and electromagnetic radiation into space. This magnetized plasma is mostly protons and electrons. The CME ejection often just disperses into space, but not always. If it’s aimed in the direction of the Earth, chances are we get increased auroral activity.

The second cause of auroras are coronal holes on the Sun’s surface. A coronal hole is a region on the surface of the Sun that is cooler and less dense than surrounding areas. Coronal holes are the source of fast-moving streams of material from the Sun.

Whether it’s from an active region on the Sun full of solar flares, or whether it’s from a coronal hole, the result is the same. When the discharge from the Sun strikes the charged particles in our own magnetosphere with enough force, both can be forced into our upper atmosphere. As they reach the atmosphere, they give up their energy. This causes constituents in our atmosphere to emit light. Anyone who has witnessed an aurora knows just how striking that light can be. The shifting and shimmering patterns of light are mesmerizing.

The auroras occur in a region called the auroral oval, which is biased towards the night side of the Earth. This oval is expanded by stronger solar emissions. So when we watch the surface of the Sun for increased activity, we can often predict brighter auroras which will be more visible in southern latitudes, due to the expansion of the auroral oval.

This photo is of the aurora australis over New Zealand. Image: Paul Stewart, Public Domain, CC 1.0 Universal.

Something happening on the surface of the Sun in the last couple days could signal increased auroras on Earth, tonight and tomorrow (March 28th, 29th). A feature called a trans-equatorial coronal hole is facing Earth, which could mean that a strong solar wind is about to hit us. If it does, look north or south at night, depending on where your live, to see the auroras.

Of course, auroras are only one aspect of space weather. They’re like rainbows, because they’re very pretty, and they’re harmless. But space weather can be much more powerful, and can produce much greater effects than mere auroras. That’s why there’s a growing effort to be able to predict space weather by watching the Sun.

A powerful enough solar storm can produce a CME strong enough to damage things like power systems, navigation systems, communications systems, and satellites. The Carrington Event in 1859 was one such event. It produced one of the largest solar storms on record.

That storm occurred on September 1st and 2nd, 1859. It was preceded by an increase in sun spots, and the flare that accompanied the CME was observed by astronomers. The auroras caused by this storm were seen as far south as the Caribbean.

Sunspots are dark areas on the surface of the Sun that are cooler than the surrounding areas. They form where magnetic fields are particularly strong. The highly active magnetic fields near sunspots often cause solar flares. Image: NASA/SDO/AIA/HMI/Goddard Space Flight Center

The same storm today, in our modern technological world, would wreak havoc. In 2012, we almost found out exactly how damaging a storm of that magnitude could be. A pair of CMEs as powerful as the Carrington Event came barreling towards Earth, but narrowly missed us.

We’ve learned a lot about the Sun and solar storms since 1859. We now know that the Sun’s activity is cyclical. Every 11 years, the Sun goes through its cycle, from solar maximum to solar minimum. The maximum and minimum correspond to periods of maximum sunspot activity and minimum sunspot activity. The 11 year cycle goes from minimum to minimum. When the Sun’s activity is at its minimum in the cycle, most CMEs come from coronal holes.

NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory (SDO), and the combined ESA/NASA Solar and Heliospheric Observatory (SOHO) are space observatories tasked with studying the Sun. The SDO focuses on the Sun and its magnetic field, and how changes influence life on Earth and our technological systems. SOHO studies the structure and behavior of the solar interior, and also how the solar wind is produced.

Several different websites allow anyone to check in on the behavior of the Sun, and to see what space weather might be coming our way. The NOAA’s Space Weather Prediction Center has an array of data and visualizations to help understand what’s going on with the Sun. Scroll down to the Aurora forecast to watch a visualization of expected auroral activity.

NASA’s Space Weather site contains all kinds of news about NASA missions and discoveries around space weather. is a volunteer run site that provides real-time info on space weather. You can even sign up to receive alerts for upcoming auroras and other solar activity.

The Sun Burps Out a Gigantic Rolling Wave

Just in time for May Day, the Sun blasted out a coronal mass ejection (CME) from just around the limb earlier today, May 1, 2013. In a gigantic rolling wave, this CME shot out about a billion tons of particles into space, traveling at over a million miles per hour. This CME is not headed toward Earth. The video, taken in extreme ultraviolet light by NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory (SDO), covers about two and a half hours of elapsed time.

Camilla, the rubber chicken mascot for the SDO, said via YouTube that getting this side view shows the power and force behind these solar flares and coronal mass ejections.

This image shows three views of the CME from three different instruments. Left is the SDO image, taken at 02:40 UT. Center is from the SOHO spacecraft, looking through their coronograph instrument. The “mushroom” cloud of plasma leaving the Sun is visible. On the right is the LASCO C2 (red) and C3 (blue) instruments on SOHO, which use a disk to block out the Sun. Visible are the solid occulter disk, used to create a false eclipse; the “pylon”, which is an arm that holds the occulter disk in place; a representation of the Sun in the form of a white disk drawn on the occulter during our image processing and then you can see background stars and the cloud of plasma leaving the Sun.

A coronal mass ejection from the Sun on May 1, 2013. Credit: NASA/SDO
A coronal mass ejection from the Sun on May 1, 2013. Credit: NASA/SDO

Sun Unleashes Powerful X-Class Solar Flare

The Sun has been quiet recently but early today (04:13 UTC on March 5, 2012) it unleashed a powerful X1-class solar flare and coronal mass ejection. The latest estimates indicate the CME will probably miss Earth, but hit Mercury and Venus. Even so, the science team from the Solar Dynamics Observatory says that high-latitude skywatchers should still be alert for auroras in the nights ahead. There was also an M2-class eruption from the same big and active sunspot, Active Region 1429, on March 4th which produced another, wider CME that might yet intersect Earth. The cloud is expected to deliver a glancing blow to our planet’s magnetic field on March 6th at 04:30 UT (+/- 7 hrs).

Check the latest forecast of the CME’s arrival from the NASA Goddard Space Weather Lab, which includes a great animation.

So, what’s the difference in the classes of solar flares and how could they affect us on Earth?
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Aurora Alert! Sun Sends CME in Earth’s Direction

As seen here by the Solar Dynamics Observatory, a long duration M3-class flare began erupting on the Sun from sunspot region 1401 at 13:42 UTC (8:42 AM ET) today, Thursday, January 19, 2012, sending a coronal mass ejection (CME) directly towards Earth. Scientists predict the CME will arrive at around 16:00 UTC on January 21, 2012 GMT. says strong geomagnetic storms are possible and high-latitude (and possibly middle-latitude) skywatchers can be on the lookout for increased aurora.

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Sun Erupts with Enormous X2 Solar Flare

Just in time for Valentine’s Day, [and the Stardust flyby of Comet Tempel 1] the Sun erupted with a massive X-Class flare, the most powerful of all solar events on February 14 at 8:56 p.m. EST . This was the first X-Class flare in Solar Cycle 24 and the most powerful X-ray flare in more than four years.

The video above shows the flare as imaged by the AIA instrument at 304 Angstroms on NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory. More graphic videos below show the flare in the extreme ultraviolet wavelength of 193 Angstroms and as a composite with SOHO’s coronagraph.

Spaceweather Update: A CME hit Earth’s magnetic field at approximately 0100 UT on Feb. 18th (8:00 pm EST on Feb. 17th). Send me or comment your aurora photos

The eruption registered X2 on the Richter scale of solar flares and originated from Active Region 1138 in the sun’s southern hemisphere. The flare directly follows several M-class and C-class flares over the past few days which were less powerful. The explosion also let loose a coronal mass ejection (CME) headed for Earth’s orbit. It was speeding at about 900 Km/second.
CME’s can disrupt communications systems and the electrical power grid and cause long lasting radiation storms.

According to a new SDO update, the particle cloud from this solar storm is weaker than first expected and may produce some beautiful aurora in the high northern and southern latitudes on Feb. 17 (tonight).

According to, skywatchers in the high latitudes should be alert for auroras after nightfall Feb. 17 from this moderately strong geomagnetic storm.

Send me your aurora reports and photos to post here

Sources: SDO website,

NASA SDO – Big, Bright Flare February 15, 2011

Video Caption: Active region 1158 let loose with an X2.2 flare at 0153 UT or 8:50 pm ET on February 15, 2011, the largest flare since Dec. 2006 and the biggest flare so far in Solar Cycle 24. Active Region 1158 is in the southern hemisphere, which has been lagging the north in activity but now leads in big flares! The movie shows a close-up of the flaring region taken by the Solar Dynamics Observatory in the extreme ultraviolet wavelength of 193 Angstroms. Much of the vertical line in the image and the staggered lines making an “X” are caused by the bright flash overwhelming our imager. A coronal mass ejection was also associated with the flare. The movie shows activity over about two days (Feb. 13-15, 2011). Since the active region was facing Earth, there is a good chance that Earth will receive some effects from these events, with some possibility of mid-latitude aurora Feb. 16 – 18. Credit: NASA SDO

X2 flare Video combo from SDO and SOHO

Video caption: The X2 flare of Feb. 15, 2011 seen by SDO (in extreme ultraviolet light) enlarged and superimposed on SOHO’s coronagraph that shows the faint edge of a “halo” coronal mass ejection as it races away from the Sun. The video covers about 11 hours


This image taken by SDO's AIA instrument at 171 Angstrom shows the current conditions of the quiet corona and upper transition region of the Sun. Credit: NASA/SDO/AIA