Sun Celebrates Solstice With Flare (and a CME)

The Halo coronal mass ejection (CME) as viewed by the Solar and Heliospheric Observatory coronograph on June 21, 2011. Credit: NASA/SOHO


Late in the evening on June 20, 2011 the Sun emitted a long lasting C7.7 class flare (a relatively small flare) that peaked around 11:25p.m. EDT. The flare was associated with a coronal mass ejection that bloomed off the sun at 11:09p.m. EDT (0412 UT). reports that according to analysts at the Goddard Space Flight Center Space Weather Lab, the CME left the sun traveling 800 km/s and it will reach Earth on June 23rd at 23:22 UT (plus or minus 7 hours). A very cool 3D heliospheric model (below) shows the cloud sweeping past our planet. The impact is expected to trigger a G2-class geomagnetic storm.

High-latitude sky watchers should be alert for auroras on June 23rd and 24. The season favors southern hemisphere observers, where skies are darker for longer due to the winter solstice.

These 3D Heliospheric animated models, developed by the Community Coordinated Modeling Center based at the Goddard Space Flight Center, show how the CME cloud might appear as it sweeps past Earth. Credit: NASA/CCMC

Update: SDO posted this video of the event:

Sources: NASA,

Giant “Surfing” Waves Roll Through Sun’s Atmosphere

Surfer waves -- initiated in the sun, as they are in the water, by a process called a Kelvin-Helmholtz instability -- have been found in the sun's atmosphere. Credit: NASA/SDO/Astrophysical Journal Letters


Surf’s up on the Sun! Our favorite gnarly spacecraft, the Solar Dynamics Observatory (SDO) has caught conclusive evidence of classic “surfer waves” in the Sun’s atmosphere. But these waves trump ‘Hawaii Five-O’ surfing big time, as they are about the same size as the continental U.S. Spotting these waves will help our understanding of how energy moves through the solar atmosphere, known as the corona and maybe even help solar physicists be able to predict events like Coronal Mass Ejections.

Just like a surfing wave on Earth, the solar counterpart is formed by the same fluid mechanics — in this case it is a phenomenon known as a Kelvin-Helmholtz instability. Since scientists know how these kinds of waves disperse energy in water, they can use this information to better understand the corona. This in turn, may help solve an enduring mystery of why the corona is thousands of times hotter than originally expected.

“One of the biggest questions about the solar corona is the heating mechanism,” says solar physicist Leon Ofman of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Md. and Catholic University, Washington. “The corona is a thousand times hotter than the sun’s visible surface, but what heats it up is not well-understood. People have suggested that waves like this might cause turbulence which cause heating, but now we have direct evidence of Kelvin-Helmholtz waves.”

Even though these waves occur frequently in nature here on Earth, no one had seen them on the Sun. But that was before SDO.

Ofman and colleagues spotted these waves in images taken on April 8, 2010 in some of the first images caught on camera by SDO, which launched in Feburary last year and began capturing data on March 24, 2010. Ofman & team have just published a paper in Astrophysical Journal Letters.

Kelvin-Helmholtz instabilities occur when two fluids of different densities or speeds flow by each other. In the case of ocean waves, that’s the dense water and the lighter air. As they flow past each other, slight ripples can be quickly amplified into the giant waves loved by surfers. In the case of the solar atmosphere, which is made of a very hot and electrically charged gas called plasma, the two flows come from an expanse of plasma erupting off the sun’s surface as it passes by plasma that is not erupting. The difference in flow speeds and densities across this boundary sparks the instability that builds into the waves.

On the sun, the two fluids are both plasmas — expanses of super hot, charged gases — which interact. One is erupting from the surface and shooting past a second plasma that is not erupting. The resulting turbulence is a Kelvin-Helmholtz wave form.

The erupting plasma is likely from a Coronal Mass Ejection, such as was seen earlier this week, where the Sun violently propels massive amounts of high-speed plasma particles into space. So, knowing more about the how the corona is heated and what the conditions are just before the KH waves form might give scientists the ability to predict a the next CME, which is a long-standing goal of solar scientists.

But figuring out the exact mechanism for heating the corona will likely keep solar physicists busy for quite some time. However, SDO’s ability to capture images of the entire sun every 12 seconds with such precise detail will certainly provide the data needed.

Source: NASA

You can follow Universe Today senior editor Nancy Atkinson on Twitter: @Nancy_A. Follow Universe Today for the latest space and astronomy news on Twitter @universetoday and on Facebook.

More Eye-Popping Video from the June 7 Solar Explosion

Massive coronal mass ejection on. This image shows the size of the Earth to scale. NASA / SDO / J. Major.
Massive coronal mass ejection on. This image shows the size of the Earth to scale. NASA / SDO / J. Major.

Here’s more video from the huge explosion on the Sun on June 7, 2011, which began at about 06:41 UTC. Not only was this event one of the most spectacular ever recorded, but also one of the best observed, with complementary data from several spacecraft and different vantage points. This video shows data from three different space observatories. The Solar Dynamics Observatory’s Atmospheric Imaging Assembly recorded the amazing event in stunning detail in different wavelengths. Additionally, the Solar & Heliospheric Observatory’s (SOHO) LASCO coronagraph and STEREO’s (Solar Terrestrial Relations Observatory) SECCHI instrument suite observed the prominence and associated CME as they traveled out into the heliosphere. Using LASCO and SECCHI data, the speed of the leading edge of the CME was estimated to be in the range 1200 – 1600 km/s. Model calculations predict that Earth will receive a glancing blow of the CME on June 10, possibly sparking some nice aurorae at high latitudes, according to the SDO team.

The citizen science project Solar Storm Watch predicts a solar storm to reach Earth at 08:00 UTC on June 10, 2011 with a glancing blow 35 degrees behind Earth, with a second storm expected at 19:00 UTC on June 10, 2011, with another glancing blow 32 degrees behind Earth.

The event originated from the almost spotless active region 11226 and was associated with a moderate M2-class X-ray flare. The CME and associated shock wave produced and S1-class radiation storm, which shows up as speckles in the LASCO movies.

The size of the prominence is thought to be at least 75 times the size of Earth. Our Jason Major created a graphic showing the size comparison. Earth is the little teeny tiny blue circle in the top left corner:


More Dancing Plasma on the Sun

Here’s the reason for those auroras Tammy was talking about…The Solar Dynamics Observatory captures a beautiful filament eruption from the Sun in the early hours of May 17, 2011 which sent a cloud of plasma into space. This Coronal Mass Ejection was not aimed at Earth but it will likely interact with Earth’s magnetic field by the 19th, so be on the lookout for auroras. The second part of the video is from today, May 18, 2011 and shows some dancing plasma and more “plasma rain” similar to what we showed a last week. few days ago. The Sun’s gravity grabs and pulls the plasma back, even when it appears ready to travel off into space.

Plasma Dancing Off the Sun

The Solar Dynamics Observatory captured some plasma streaming off the Sun, doing a quick dance, and diving back into the surface. This video zooms into an active region over two days (Apr. 30 – May 2, 2011). The cloud of ionized gas, or plasma that comes off the Sun is caused by an active, erupting sunspot. Why does the plasma return instead of streaming off into space? Magnetic forces are pulling the material along magnetic field lines on the Sun, and the plasma follows the Sun’s magnetic fields as it flies outwards, and either returns to the Sun or goes out into space. Here, the plasma returned. What you are seeing is ionized Helium at about 60,000 degrees C. in extreme ultraviolet light.

How a Rubber Chicken is Spreading the Word about NASA, Space Missions and Science

Camilla Corona: rubber chicken, mission mascot extraordinaire. Credit: SDO


Here’s a headline you don’t see too often: “Rubber Chicken Turned NASA Mission Mascot Embarks on a Flight to Space.” Seriously, this is a true story. If you’ve not heard of Camilla Corona, or Camilla SDO as she is sometimes called, you probably haven’t been paying attention to one of the most exciting current space missions, the Solar Dynamics Observatory. Camilla is virtually everywhere in the world of social media, and she travels around the country – and the planet – spreading the word about what’s going on with our Sun and how SDO is helping us learn more about it. As mission mascot, she is leading the way – and setting the bar pretty high for other NASA missions to follow – about how to get the public interested in space and science.

“People ask, ‘what does a rubber chicken have to do with a science mission?’ but as long as we get people’s attention, we can then divert it to what SDO does,” said Romeo Durscher, Camilla’s PR assistant and ‘bodyguard.’ “However, we didn’t know it would go this far when we started this.”

Camilla oversees the images coming back from the Solar Dyamics Observatory's instruments at Lockheed Martin facility in California. Credit: Nancy Atkinson.

The story of Camilla goes back to the early days of SDO at Goddard Space Flight Center, when mission scientist Barbara Thompson introduced Camilla as something funny for the science team.

“Barbara was very persistent – she brought little Camillas and rubber chickens to all the science meetings to lighten up the room,” Durscher said.” The question always is, ‘why Camilla?’ and the official answer is because she is the same color as the sun. Over the years, Camilla has just become more and more integrated into the education and public outreach side of the mission.”

“Camilla started as an inter-office joke and soon became the mascot for the science side of the mission,” said Aleya Van Doren, the formal education lead for SDO. “It is not uncommon for someone who has been working on SDO for awhile to receive a rubber chicken as sort of a ‘you’ve earned your keep’ award. She’s a great moral booster for the science team, as well as being a wonderful ‘hook’ to get the public interested in the mission.”

Van Doren said the fun part is bringing Camila to public events or classrooms. “She is a great conversation starter with kids, especially with elementary children. Our main focus is getting the science out to the public, so whatever means we can use to draw in people’s interest and see the amazing things that SDO is doing, we consider it worthwhile.”

I’ve personally seen children — as well as adults — literally melt when meeting Camilla and get very excited about interacting with her.

As far as the public side of things, Van Doren said they are pleasantly surprised at the amount of attention her social media channels on Twitter and Facebook have been bringing to the mission.

“Romeo does a great job bringing her around to various places. Her schedule is quite full for a chicken. I would be really tired if I was that busy,” Van Doren said.

Which begs the question: just how many Camillas are there?

“That is a guarded secret,” Van Doren said, “but there is really only one official Camilla. We are very careful to make sure she is only in one place at a time. But sometimes airfare gets expensive, so she’ll have a body double in one place. Jet-setting around the country can sometimes be difficult.”

Durscher is the keeper of what is now the official Camilla, but confirmed that she does indeed have some body doubles. At first, it was easy to have Camilla be in several places at once. That was before she started wearing clothes.

Camilla wears a spacesuit in hopes of catching a ride with the astronauts heading out on the STS-133 mission. Credit: SDO

“Our rubber chicken had the SDO mission pin on her left side, and that was Camilla,” Durscher said. “We had one at Goddard, one at Stanford University, and another at our education office, so there were several Camillas, and we had the story that she was travelling here and there, but now it gets a little more complicated.”

Cynthia Butcher, a fan of Camilla, knits specially made outfits for a rubber chicken, including a spacesuit, a Star Trek uniform, an “I Dream of Jeannie” outfit, and many more.

“Cynthia is a wonderful person, one of the first followers of Camilla on Twitter and Facebook,” Durscher said. “She really enjoyed what Camilla was doing, and said that Camilla should have a flight suit and that she would make her one. When we got the outfits, we were thrilled. But now we have to have a storyline for why we sometimes we might see Camilla without any clothes on – maybe the suit will be in the dry cleaning, or something.”

Camilla with astronaut Robert Curbeam. Credit: SDO

Camilla has met astronauts, trained at Johnson Space Center, attended World Space Week in Nigeria and a science fair in Malaysia, been on hand at many NASA Tweet-ups and launches, and even given a speech at the Smithsonain Ignite event at the Smithsonian Museum – well, actually Durscher ended up speaking for her, as Camilla lost her voice shouting at all the animals in the Washington DC Zoo the day before.

But Camilla’s main goal is to educate, inspire (especially to inspire girls to go into science and engineering) to build community and have fun — as well as bringing the beautiful, stunning and wonderful images and data from SDO into the classroom.

“We have lots of things teachers can use to educate their students about the Sun — hands-on experiments, beautiful images — and students can have the opportunity interact with mission scientists,” Durscher said.

Camilla and her crew pose with the poster for the BTS-1 (Balloon Transport System).

But now Camilla embarks on what might be her greatest adventure ever. She is actually going to space. Camilla will be going to the edge of space in a weather balloon with a camera for the Camilla Space Weather Project.

“We are using that launch as the hook for new program we are doing to get the public interested in space weather forecasts,” said Van Doren.

Space weather refers to conditions on the Sun and in the solar wind that impact Earth’s atmosphere and can influence space and ground based technology and even human health.

“We have a page of a series of questions that people can go through to make a prediction of whether a space weather event is going to take place – such as the bright flares SDO has observed recently, and if those events will affect Earth, such as auroras being visible, or if it could cause any problems with satellites or related technology,” said Van Doren.

Launch is currently scheduled for this weekend, May 8 from the University of Houston central campus. Launch preparations begin at 10 AM, and will be webcast on UStream.

“We want to make sure that when Camilla launches it will be safe, so we’ve been having people make a space weather forecast and see whether or not it will be good conditions for launching to the upper atmosphere. Of course we don’t want Camilla to be bombarded with radiation, so classrooms have been making recommendations if this will be a good time to go or not,” Van Doren said.

Durscher said that as of Friday, the mission was go.

Camilla, Skye Bleu, and Fuzz Aldrin get ready for their mission. Credit: SDO

Camilla is not going to space alone. She’s traveling with Fuzz Aldrin from “Bears on Patrol” which provides US police officers with free teddy bears to use in cases involving small children, as well as a stuffed pig, Skye Bleu, the STEM (science technology engineering and math) outreach mascot for the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronnautics (AIAA) and a patch to represent Smokey Bear.

“Our goal is to inspire the next generation of engineers, scientists and explorers,” Durscher said, “and we’ll make sure that Camilla and her crew will come back alive.”

Let’s hope so. Camilla has lots more work to do spreading the word about NASA, space and science.

Me and Camilla.

SDO: The Moon Gets in My Way

A close-up look at SDO's view of the Moon, backlit by the Sun, showing mountains on the limb. . Image courtesy of NASA/SDO and the AIA, EVE, and HMI science teams. Edited by Jason Major. Click for a larger version on Jason's Flickr page.

Early today, the Solar Dynamics Observatory was able to observe the Moon coming in between the spacecraft and the Sun. If you look closely, you can actually see mountains on the Moon subtly backlit by the Sun’s atmosphere.


The SDO science team says that not only is this amazing to see, but it actually allows them to “sharpen-up” the SDO images. The sharp edge of the lunar limb allows our team to measure the in-orbit characteristics of the telescopes on board the spacecraft.

See a close-up image (processed by our own Jason Major) below.


Year One of the Solar Dynamics Observatory – Vote for Your Favorite Solar Events

Over the past year, the Sun has gone from one of quietest periods in decades to the ramping up of activity marking the beginning of Solar Cycle 24. And with impeccable timing, the Solar Dynamics Observatory has been there, in orbit, capturing every moment with a level of detail never-before possible. The mission has returned unprecedented images of solar flares, eruptions of prominences, and the early stages of coronal mass ejections (CMEs). It was on April 21st, 2010 that the SDO scientists were able to reveal the first images from their fledgling satellite, and now, one year on, who has not loved the intricate details of old Sol that we’ve been able to see in the imagery and video SDO has provided!

This video shows some of the most beautiful and compelling solar events seen by SDO so far, and at the SDO website, you can vote for your favorite. The contest runs through Thursday May 5, 2011. Check back on May 6 to see which video the public selected as their all-time favorite SDO video from the past year.

Interacting Sunspots Spawn Gigantic Solar Flare

From a RAS press release:

The largest solar flare recorded in nearly five years was triggered by interactions between five rotating sunspots, say researchers who studied observations of the flaring region of the Sun taken by the Solar Dynamics Observatory over a period of five days. The flare occurred at 1.44am on February 15,2011, when the Sun released the largest recorded solar flare since December 2006 and the first flare of the current solar cycle to be classified as the most powerful “X-class”.
Continue reading “Interacting Sunspots Spawn Gigantic Solar Flare”