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,

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, 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.
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“Alien Prometheus Prominence” Hovers Over the Sun

Seen the movie “Prometheus” yet? If so, you may recognize one of the creatures in an eerie but beautiful prominence eruption from the Sun today. The folks at the Solar Dynamics Observatory noticed the similarity, too. This video covers almost 15 hours from the early hours of June 18, 2012, showing ultraviolet views from the AIA instrument on SDO. In addition to the hovering alien, look for a big blast from the Sun at about 0:15, too.
Continue reading ““Alien Prometheus Prominence” Hovers Over the Sun”

Sun Spews Earth-Directed Flares

On June 14th, for the second day in a row, sunspot AR1504 erupted and hurled a Coronal Mass Ejection toward Earth. says the fast-moving (1360 km/s) cloud is expected to sweep up a previous CME and deliver a combined blow to Earth’s magnetic field on June 16th around 10:16 UT. So, high latitude skywatchers should be on the lookout for possible aurorae.
Continue reading “Sun Spews Earth-Directed Flares”

Active Region on the Sun Turning Toward Earth

The Solar Dynamics Observatory always provides an incredible view of our Sun, and is keeping an eye on Active Region 1504, which is turning towards Earth and has been producing several C-class solar flares and even three stronger M-class solar flares. There are also a few other Active Regions visible, 1505, 1506 and 1507. The video above starts off with a view from June 9 to 12 in the 171 angstrom wavelengths and it shows us the many coronal loops extending off of the Sun where plasma moves along magnetic field lines, then switches to the 304 angstrom view, seeing the M-class solar flares.
Continue reading “Active Region on the Sun Turning Toward Earth”

Stunning Timelapse: Spacecraft Capture the Transit of Venus

SDO's Ultra-high Definition View of 2012 Venus Transit -- Path Sequence. Credit: NASA/SDO

Here’s the entire 7-hour transit of Venus across the face of the Sun – shown in several views — in just 39 seconds, as seen by the Solar Dynamics Observatory on June 5, 2012. This view is in the 171 Angstrom wavelength, so note also the the bright active region in the northern solar hemisphere as Venus passes over, with beautiful coronal loops visible. The transit produced a silhouette of Venus on the Sun that no one alive today will likely see again. With its specialized instruments SDO’s high-definition view from space provides a solar spectacular!

Scott Wiessinger from NASA Goddard’s Scientific Visualization Studio wrote this morning to tell us, “If you have the space and the bandwidth, I really recommend downloading this large file on the SVS to view. YouTube compression is hard on solar footage, so it looks even better when you watch it at true full quality.”

Below is a composite image from SDO of Venus’ path across the Sun, as well as another great timelapse view from ESA’s PROBA-2 microsatellite:


This movie shows the transit of Venus as seen from SWAP, a Belgian solar imager onboard ESA’s PROBA2 microsatellite. SWAP, watching the Sun in EUV light, observes Venus as a small, black circle, obscuring the EUV light emitted from the solar outer atmosphere – the corona – from 19:45UT onwards (seen on the running timer on the video). At 22:16UT – Venus started its transit of the solar disk.

Venus appears to wobble thanks to the slight up-down motion of Proba-2 and the large distance between the satellite and the Sun.

The bright dots all over the image, looking almost like a snow storm, are energetic particles hitting the SWAP detector when PROBA2 crosses the South Atlantic Anomaly, a region where the protection of the Earth magnetic field against space radiation is known to be weaker.

And as if the Sun is just showing off, a Coronal Mass Ejection is visible as well towards the end of the video, seen as a big, dim inverted-U-shape moving away from the Sun towards the bottom-right corner. This is a coronal mass ejection bursting out from the Sun.

The Zen of the Sun

An active region on the Sun, processed in an unusual -- and accidental -- process. Credit: NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center.


Images and video from the Solar Dynamics Observatory have shown us that the fury of the Sun can be mesmerizingly beautiful. SDO has allowed us to see loops of plasma in various wavelengths, coils of magnetic fields that are invisible to human eyes, and so much more. And then, sometimes, happy accidents happen, creating beautiful images just for beauty’s sake. The teams at Goddard Space Flight Center’s Multimedia Center are wizards at honing SDO’s raw data into works of art, and video producer Scott Wiessinger sent a note today to say he accidentally happened across a “really neat Photoshop effect,” that while not really useful scientifically, is rather beautiful and fun to watch. “There isn’t any science behind this video, it’s just a nice ‘moment of zen,’” he said.

The video is below.

The lead image shows one of the original frames in the 171 Angstrom wavelength of extreme ultraviolet, with the additional processing. This wavelength shows plasma in the corona that is around 600,000 Kelvin. The loops represent plasma held in place by magnetic fields. They are concentrated in “active regions” where the magnetic fields are the strongest. These active regions usually appear in visible light as sunspots.

So, enjoy a little contemplative moment courtesy of the Goddard team:

The video shows about 24 hours of activity on September 25, 2011.

Thanks to Scott and the Goddard team for sharing their work! See more images with this unique processing at their website.

Chaos and Education at 120,000 feet for Camilla the Rubber Chicken

The helium balloon pops at the apex of the flight on March 10, 2012. Credit: Earth to Sky-Bishop CA


In my travels, I’ve had the pleasure of regularly meeting up with Camilla the Rubber Chicken, the social media maven and mascot for NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory. But lately I’ve been seeing here virtually everywhere — on television, splashed across all sorts of websites, and even in my local newspaper. What Camilla does is try to capture the imagination of students and get them interested in space and science. With her latest adventures she’s done just that, and now captured the attention of people all around the world, too.

What did she do? She flew to the stratosphere — about 36,000 meters (120,000 ft) up — on a helium balloon right into the throes of one of the most intense solar radiation storms since 2003.

“I am still glowing,” Camilla joked.

Inflating Camilla's ride. Image courtesy Bishop Union High School.

Students from Bishop Union High School’s Earth to Sky group spearheaded the flights, as Camilla actually flew twice — once on March 3 before the radiation storm and again on March 10 while the storm was in full swing. This would give the students a basis for comparison of the radiation environment.

On board with Camilla was a payload of four cameras, a cryogenic thermometer two GPS trackers, radiation detectors, Seven insects and two-dozen sunflower seeds (fittingly, the variety known as “Sunspot” — Helianthus annuus) all inside a modified department store lunchbox.

“We equipped Camilla with sensors to measure the radiation,” says Sam Johnson, 16, of Bishop Union High School’s Earth to Sky student group. “At the apex of our flight, the payload was above 99 percent of Earth’s atmosphere.”

Camilla made it back in one piece, but unfortunately, the insects died.

“This story is really about STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) and about these kids from Bishop, California who have worked really hard in developing the mission, planning it, and then executing it,” Camilla told Universe Today. “They had to overcome set-backs, review their processes, come up with better solutions and implement them. For them it was a great hands-on learning experience and they are and can be proud of their accomplishments.”

NASA knows that these kinds of programs, where kids can get involved in hands-on research, are very important for introducing and keeping students interested in STEM subjects, important areas of study for future NASA scientists and engineers.

“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,” Camilla said via email. “Team SDO’s goal has always been to encourage more girls into STEM careers and seeing that this team had several girls on the team was just the most rewarding.”

Students prepare Camilla for her ride into the stratosphere. Image courtesy Bishop Union High School.

The video of the balloon popping and part of Camilla’s flight:

During the two-and-a-half-hour flights, Camilla spent approximately 90 minutes in the stratosphere where temperatures ( -40 to -60 C, -40 to -76 F) and air pressures (1 percent sea level) are akin to those on the planet Mars. The balloon popped, as planned, at an altitude of about 40 km (25 miles) and Camilla parachuted safely back to Earth. The entire payload was recovered intact from a landing site in the Inyo Mountains.

The fifth grade students who assisted with the flight have planted the sunflower seeds to see if radiated seeds produce flowers any different from seeds that stayed behind on Earth. They also pinned the corpses of the insects to a black “Foamboard of Death,” a rare collection of bugs that have been to the edge of space.

Meanwhile, Camilla’s radiation badges have been sent to a commercial laboratory for analysis.

The students say they are looking forward to the data and perhaps sending Camilla back for more.

“I truly believe that text books will always be around,” Camilla said, “but real-life hands-on projects like these are wonderful, and will become more popular.”

Here’s a video of an X-class flare from sunspot AR1429, which unleashed more than 50 solar flares during the first two weeks of March:

Read more about Camilla’s adventures, or our previous article, How a Rubber Chicken is Spreading the Word About NASA’s Space Missions and Science.