Astrophoto: Giant Sunspot Group on the Sun

On February 19 and 20, 2013, scientists watched a giant sunspot form in under 48 hours. It has grown to over six Earth diameters. This image by astrophotographer Paul Andrew shows a detailed, close-up view of this sunspot group, named AR 1678, imaged with a hydrogen alpha filter.

NASA said the spot quickly evolved into what’s called a delta region, which has a magnetic field that harbors energy for strong solar flares. NOAA forecasters estimate a 45% chance of M-flares and a 15% chance of X-flares during the next day.

Below is an image from the Solar Dynamics Observatory of this region on the Sun:

This image of AR 1678 combines images from two instruments on NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory (SDO): the Helioseismic and Magnetic Imager (HMI), which takes pictures in visible light that show sunspots and the Advanced Imaging Assembly (AIA), which took an image in the 304 Angstrom wavelength showing the lower atmosphere of the sun, which is colorized in red. Credit: NASA/SDO/AIA/HMI/Goddard Space Flight Center
This image of AR 1678 combines images from two instruments on NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory (SDO): the Helioseismic and Magnetic Imager (HMI), which takes pictures in visible light that show sunspots and the Advanced Imaging Assembly (AIA), which took an image in the 304 Angstrom wavelength showing the lower atmosphere of the sun, which is colorized in red. Credit: NASA/SDO/AIA/HMI/Goddard Space Flight Center

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Stunning Compilation of the Solar Dynamic Observatory’s Observations

Three years ago today, (February 11, 2010) I was standing at Kennedy Space Center watching the launch of the Solar Dynamics Observatory. The launch was spectacular, and included a unique effect as the Atlas rocket flew close to a sundog just as the spacecraft reached Max-Q, creating a ripple effect around the spacecraft. And so, SDO started off with a bang and she’s been producing incredible data ever since. The folks at Goddard Spaceflight Center’s Scientific Visualiation Studio have put together a highlight reel for the third year of SDO operations. You’ll see morphing sunspots, fountains of solar plasma, sun-grazing comets and more. Throughout its mission, SDO has not only studied the Sun, but also opened up several new, unexpected doors to scientific inquiry. Enjoy this “greatest hits” video of SDO’s third year.

SDO’s Camilla the Rubber Chicken: Cure for a Common Phobia

We at Universe Today really appreciate the work that Camilla the Rubber Chicken does in her role of education and public outreach. This new video from NASA explains why many people agree that she puts a completely different spin on getting people interested in space and science. As Camilla once told us, “As you know, I not only want to educate about our Sun and space weather, but I want to inspire and show kids (and adults) how much fun science and engineering really is,” she said via email. “Team SDO’s goal has always been to encourage more girls into STEM careers,” … and to make people feel comfortable asking questions, too.

Disco Sun: X-Class Flare Creates Strobe-Light Effect

An active region just turning into view on the left side of the Sun has emitted three large flares since Saturday: an M9, an M5 and early today blasted out an X1.8 class flare. This flare occurred around 3:17 am UTC today (or 11:17 pm EDT on Oct. 22). The strobe-light-like effect visible in the video was created by the brightness of the flare and how the instruments on the Solar Dynamics Observatory responded to it. Phil Chamberlin, Deputy Project Scientist SDO told Universe Today that built in algorithms called ‘active exposure control’ compensate for the extra light coming in from a flare. It doesn’t always result in the strobe or fluttering effect, but the algorithms create shorter exposure time, and thus a dimmer, but still scientifically useful view of the entire Sun. The algorithms go into effect whenever there is an M class or higher flare.

Solar flares are powerful bursts of radiation. Harmful radiation from a flare can’t pass through Earth’s atmosphere and pose a hazard to humans on the ground, but flares like this can disturb the atmosphere in the layer where GPS and communications signals travel, and an X-class flare of this intensity can cause problems or even blackouts in radio communications.

A Coronal Mass Ejection (CME) was not associated with this flare, and the flare was not directed at Earth, so scientists do not expect any additional auroral activity to be a result of this latest blast from the Sun.

An image from the Solar Dynamics Observatory during the X-class flare event on Oct. 23, 2012 (UTC). Credit: NASA/SDO

The SDO Twitter feed said there is a 75% chance of more M-class solar flares from this active region and a 20% chance of additional X-class flares.

This is the 7th X-class flare in 2012 with the largest being an X5.4 flare on March 7.

By observing the sun in a number of different wavelengths, NASA’s telescopes can tease out different aspects of events on the sun. These four images of a solar flare on Oct. 22, 2012, show from the top left, and moving clockwise: light from the sun in the 171 Angstrom wavelength, which shows the structure of loops of solar material in the sun’s atmosphere, the corona; light in 335 Angstroms, which highlights light from active regions in the corona; a magnetogram, which shows magnetically active regions on the sun; light in the 304 Angstrom wavelength, which shows light from the region of the sun’s atmosphere where flares originate. (Credit: NASA/SDO/Goddard)

More info: NASA, SpaceWeather.com

Peekaboo Sun: SDO’s Eclipse Season

Now you see it, now you don’t! Around the solstices, the Solar Dynamics Observatory ends up having an “eclipse season,” where the Sun, Earth, and the SDO line up, and some of the images and video sent down from the spacecraft appear as though the Sun disappears for a while or just part of the Sun is visible. This is a normal part of life with a geosynchronous observatory, the SDO team says.

They explain it this way:

“Twice a year, SDO enters an eclipse season where the spacecraft slips behind Earth for up to 72 minutes a day. Unlike the crisp shadow one sees on the sun during a lunar eclipse, Earth’s shadow has a variegated edge due to its atmosphere, which blocks the sun light to different degrees depending on its density. Also, light from brighter spots on the sun may make it through, which is why some solar features extend low into Earth’s shadow.”

There’s no way to avoid the loss of images, but the continuous contact with the ground station SDO’s orbit allows was judged to outweigh the loss of some images.

This eclipse season started September 6, and it ends tomorrow, on September 29, 2012, so see it while you can!

Watch This: Solar Prominence Achieves Liftoff

And we have liftoff! The Solar Dynamics Observatory has been providing images and video of some beautiful prominences and filaments over the past few days, and today the spacecraft captured a large prominence lifting off over the North Western limb of the Sun. A huge ball of plasma explodes from the surface and blooms into an arc loop that achieves enough energy to escape the Sun’s gravity.

The SDO team explains what the video shows:

Continue reading “Watch This: Solar Prominence Achieves Liftoff”

Prelude to an X-Class Solar Flare

Caption: Shimmering coronal loops from Active Region 1515 on the limb of the Sun before it rotates out of view on July 12, 2012. Credit: NASA/SDO/Goddard Spaceflight Center

What takes place on the Sun before it unleashes a huge solar flare? It’s a thing of beauty, and observations from the Solar Dynamics Observatory are helping scientists understand how magnetic energy on the Sun creates these giant explosions. Below is a video that shows all the activity on the Sun before it emitted a huge X 1.4- class solar flare on July 12, 2012. The shimmering coronal loops provide some magnetic magnificence that is simply stunning. The movie, created from data from SDO, shows the Sun from late July 8 to early July 10 shortly before the solar flare occurred. While the flare isn’t shown here, the movie shows how the Sun is constantly, and complexly, active.

The region responsible for the flare, Active Region 1520 is on the lower left part of the Sun, and it crackles with giant loops of magnetized solar material. On the right side of the Sun, the shimmering, enormous loops provide a parting view of Active Region 1515 – which was also responsible for many solar flares — as it disappears out of view along with the Sun’s rotation.

There is a lot happening in this video, so take the advice of video producer Scott Wiessinger from Goddard Spaceflight Center’s Scientific Visualization Studio, who suggests watching it at highest quality and in full screen. You can download large files of it here.

The Sun Blasts Out an X1-Class Solar Flare

An active region on the Sun, AR1515, has been putting on quite a show over the last 8 days, sending out all sorts of solar flares. Scientists were sure the huge sunspot was building up to produce an X-class explosion, and they were right. At 23:08 UT on July 6, 2012 it unleashed an X1-class solar flare. The explosion hurled a coronal mass ejection into space, and scientists say the cloud appears to be heading south and away from Earth; however, there is the possibility of a glancing blow to our planet on July 8th or 9th. There could be some auroral activity today, July 7, from a previous batch of CME’s hurled from the same active region.

According to the Solar Dynamics Observatory team, the movie above shows the X1 flare in various different wavelengths, which show different layers and temperatures. Each segment is about 30 minutes in real-time.

Below is another video from July 5-6, where AR1515 pulsed with with C- and M-class solar flares, about 14 flares in all:

Here’s an image of the action from SDO, with lots of activity going on:

“X1-class solar flare on the right, new active region on the left. Will the action continue?” asked Camilla_SDO, the mascot for the Solar Dynamics Observatory, via Twitter.

So, what’s the difference in the classes of solar flares and how could they affect us on Earth?

Flares happen when the powerful magnetic fields in and around the Sun reconnect. They’re usually associated with active regions, which we call sunspots, where the magnetic fields are strongest.

Flares are classified according to their strength. The smallest ones are B-class, followed by C, M and X, the largest. Similar to the Richter scale for earthquakes, each letter represents a ten-fold increase in energy output. So an X is 10 times an M and 100 times a C. Within each letter class, there is a finer scale from 1 to 9. Although X is the last letter, there are flares more than 10 times the power of an X1, so X-class flares can go higher than 9.

C-class flares are too weak to noticeably affect Earth. M-class flares can cause brief radio blackouts at the poles and minor radiation storms that might endanger astronauts. The most powerful flare on record was in 2003, during the last solar maximum. It was so powerful that it overloaded the sensors measuring it. They cut-out at X28. A powerful X-class flare like that can create long lasting radiation storms, which can harm satellites and even give airline passengers, flying near the poles, small radiation doses. X flares also have the potential to create global transmission problems and world-wide blackouts.

That’s why we keep an eye on all this activity.

Sources: SDO, Spaceweather.com

Fireworks from the Sun

From July 2 to July 5, the Sun shot off a whopping eighteen M-class solar flares. Most originated from Active Region 1515 and ranged from M1.1 to M6.1. On July 4th alone, there were seven M-class solar flares. According to SpaceWeather.com, big sunspot AR1515 appears to be on the verge of producing an X-class explosion. NOAA forecasters estimate an 80% chance of M-flares and a 10% chance of X-flares during the next 24 hours.
Continue reading “Fireworks from the Sun”