Watch Live Webcast of the Active Sun

The team from Slooh will broadcast a live Solar special focusing on the sudden emergence of hyperactivity on the Sun — lately attributed sunspot AR 1944. Right now, the Sun is in what is supposed to be the active phase of its 11-year solar cycle, Solar Cycle 24. While this has been an unusually quiet solar maximum, lately the Sun has been more active.

The broadcast will feature live feeds of the Sun from the Prescott Observatory run by Matt Francis and Slooh astronomer Bob Berman. They will provide live expert commentary during the 30 minute broadcast. The Solar Special will start at 10:00 AM PST/ 1:00 PM EST/ 18:00 UTC on Wednesday, January 15th.

You can watch live, below, or the replay if you missed it live:

Astrophoto: A Man-Made Sunspot

The Sun has been active recently along with showing several sunspots. But astrophotogher Efrain Morales captured an additional ‘man-made’ sunspot as the International Space Station transited across the face of the solar disk.

“It was a challenge as the Sun was low on the horizon at 19.5 deg. elevation, just above the canopy of the forest,” Efrain said via email, “along with and the ISS being over 250 miles distant from my location passing over Haiti at the time. His home base is the Jaicoa Observatory in Puerto Rico.

Equipment: SolarMax40, P/B CGE mount, Flea3 Ccd.

Below, see an animation of the ISS transit:

Animation of the International Space Station Transiting across the disc of the Sun on January 9th at about 20:32 UTC. Credit: Efrain Morales.

Want to get your astrophoto featured on Universe Today? Join our Flickr group or send us your images by email (this means you’re giving us permission to post them). Please explain what’s in the picture, when you took it, the equipment you used, etc.

Astrophotos: Monster Sunspot Evolution


Caption: A 5-day sequence of sunspot group AR1520. Credit: Shahrin Ahmad, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. Click to see a larger version.

There’s a monster sunspot making its way across the face of the Sun, and it’s captured the attention of several astrophotographers. This first image is from Shahrin Ahmad, who created a sequence of images as the sunspot moved to face towards Earth from the southeastern limb. He used a Skywatcher 120ED at F/15 (2X barlow) with a Baader Solar Filter and a IMG132E camera for his images.

AR1520 stretches more than 127,000 km (10 Earth diameters) from end to end, and the magnetic field of this enormous sunspot harbors energy for strong solar flares. NOAA forecasters estimate an 80% chance of M-flares and a 25% chance of X-flares during the next 24 hours, according to Spaceweather.com.

Here are some more looks at AR1520:


Caption: Closeup of monster sunspot AR1520. Credit: John Chumack.

One of our favorite astrophotographer, John Chumack, took this image of AR1520 in white light on July 8, 2012 using a Lunt Solar Herschel Solar Wedge filter, DMK 21AF04 Fire-wire Camera, 2x barlow, with 1/1000 second exposure. See more at his Flickr page, or his website, Galactic Images.


Caption: Sun and sunspots: Credit: Mike Black

Mike Black took this one on July 9, 2012

Gear: Canon 1D Mark IV + Canon 400mm f/2.8 + 2x Extender III. Baader solar film in front of lens. See more on Mike’s Flickr page.

Want to see a size comparison of AR1520? The mascot of the Solar Dynamics Observatory, Camilla the Rubber Chicken posted this comparison to Jupiter, the biggest planet in the solar system:


Caption: Size comparison of AR1520 to Jupiter. Credit: Camilla_SDO on Twitter.

Here’s a look at the previously active region on the Sun, which last week blasted out numerous M-class flares and at least one X.1-class flares, again a sequence of images from Shahrin Ahmad:

Caption: A 7-day sequence of sunspot AR1515. Credit: Shahrin Ahmad, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.

Thanks to everyone for sharing their images!

Want to get your astrophoto featured on Universe Today? Join our Flickr group or send us your images by email (this means you’re giving us permission to post them). Please explain what’s in the picture, when you took it, the equipment you used, etc.

How Big Are Sunspots?

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The short answer? Really big. The long answer? Really, really big.

The image above shows sunspot regions in comparison with the sizes of Earth and Jupiter, demonstrating the sheer enormity of these solar features.

Sunspots are regions where the Sun’s internal magnetic fields rise up through its surface layers, preventing convection from taking place and creating cooler, optically darker areas. They often occur in pairs or clusters, with individual spots corresponding to the opposite polar ends of magnetic lines.

(Read “What Are Sunspots?”)

The image on the left was acquired by NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory on May 11, 2012, showing Active Region 11476. The one on the right comes courtesy of the Carnegie Institution of Washington, and shows the largest sunspot ever captured on film, AR 14886. It was nearly the diameter of Jupiter — 88,846 miles (142,984 km)!

“The largest sunspots tend to occur after solar maximum and the larger sunspots tend to last longer as well,” writes SDO project scientist Dean Pesnell on the SDO is GO blog. “As we move through solar maximum in the northern hemisphere and look to the south to pick up the slack there should be plenty of sunspots to watch rotate by SDO.”

Sunspots are associated with solar flares and CMEs, which can send solar storms our way and negatively affect satellite operation and impact communications and sensitive electronics here on Earth. As we approach the peak of the current solar maximum cycle, it’s important to keep an eye — or a Solar Dynamics Observatory! — on the increasing activity of our home star.

(Image credit: NASA/SDO and the Carnegie Institution)

Big Sunspot; Little Chinese Space Station

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Astrophotographer extraordinaire Thierry Legault has made a name for himself with his images of spacecraft transiting across the face of the Sun. He has done it again by capturing the first-ever image of the Tiangong-1 space station transiting the Sun. The monster sunspot, AR 1476 absolutely dwarfs the Chinese space station (inside the circle), but you can see incredible details of the Tiangong-1 below in a zoomed-in version. Legault had less than a second to capture the event, with the Tiangong traveling at 7.4km/s (26500 km/h or 16500 mph,) the transit duration was only 0.9 seconds! The size of the station is pretty small — as without solar panels the first module of the Tiangong measures just 10.3 x 3.3 meters.

Zoomed and cropped version of the first image of a solar transit of Tiangong-1, the first module of the Chinese space station, taken from Southern France on May 11th 2012. Credit: Thierry Legault. Used by permission. Inset: CNSA.

Legault’s equipment was a Takahashi FSQ-106 refractor, a Baader Herschel prism and Canon 5D Mark II camera. Exposure of 1/8000s at 100 ISO.

As Legault told us in an interview earlier this year, in order to capture such images he studies maps, uses CalSky software, and has a radio synchronized watch to know very accurately when the transit event will happen.

“My camera has a continuous shuttering for 4 seconds, so I begin the sequence 2 seconds before the calculated time,” he said. “I don’t look through the camera – I never see the space station when it appears, I am just looking at my watch!”

For a transit event, he gets a total of 16 images – 4 images every second, and only after he enlarges the images will he know if he succeeded or not.

“There is a kind of feeling that is short and intense — an adrenaline rush!” Legault said. “I suppose it is much like participating in a sport, but the feeling is addictive.”

Thanks to Thierry for sharing his latest success, and you can see larger versions of these images, and much more at his website.

Giant Sunspot Seen Through Dusty Skies

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The enormous sunspot region responsible for all the recent fuss and flares was easily visible from Earth yesterday… easily visible, that is, with the help of a natural filter provided by a New Mexico dust storm!

Photographer David Tremblay captured this image on March 7 through the dust-laden sky of Alto, New Mexico. Active Region 1429 can be seen on the upper right side of the Sun’s disk. Many times the size of Earth, this sunspot region has already erupted with several X-class solar flares and sent numerous CMEs our way — with potential for more to come!

“Blowing dust from the Tularosa Basin is so very dense that observing the sun was possible with the naked eye this evening,” noted David on SpaceWeather.com, where you can see more of his solar photos taken about the same time.

The image above was captured at 560mm with a Canon MKlll ESO1D.

View more of David’s photography here.

Image © David Tremblay. All rights reserved. Used with permission.

“Cool” Gas May Be At The Root Of Sunspots

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Although well over 40 years old, the Dunn Solar Telescope at Sunspot, New Mexico isn’t going to be looking at an early retirement. On the contrary, it has been outfitted with the new Facility Infrared Spectropolarimeter (FIRS) and is already making news on its solar findings. FIRS provides simultaneous spectral coverage at visible and infrared wavelengths through the use of a unique dual-armed spectrograph. By utilizing adaptive optics to overcome atmospheric “seeing” conditions, the team took on seven active regions on the Sun – one in 2001 and six during December 2010 to December 2011 – as Sunspot Cycle 23 faded away. The full sunspot sample has 56 observations of 23 different active regions… and showed that hydrogen might act as a type of energy dissipation device which helps the Sun get a magnetic grip on its spots.

“We think that molecular hydrogen plays an important role in the formation and evolution of sunspots,” said Dr. Sarah Jaeggli, a recent University of Hawaii at Manoa graduate whose doctoral research formed a key element of the new findings. She conducted the research with Drs. Haosheng Lin, also from the University of Hawaii at Manoa, and Han Uitenbroek of the National Solar Observatory in Sunspot, NM. Jaeggli now is a postdoctoral researcher in the solar group at Montana State University. Their work is published in the February 1, 2012, issue of The Astrophysical Journal.

You don’t have to be a solar physicist to know about the Sun’s 11 year cycle, or to understand how sunspots are cooler areas of intense magnetism. Believe it or not, even the professionals aren’t quite sure of how all the mechanisms work… especially those which cause sunspot forming areas that retard normal convective motions. Of the things we’ve learned, the spot’s inner temperature has a correlation with its magnetic field strength – with a sharp rise as the temperature cools. “This result is puzzling,” Jaeggli and her colleagues wrote. It implies some undiscovered mechanism inside the spot.

NOAA 11131 sunspot region (Dec. 6, 2010) was the most intense spot measured in this study, but far from the largest the Sun can produce. The two bottom images show the strength of the magnetic field (C) and the contrast between the interior of the spot and the surrounding photosphere (D). The first graph (A) shows how OH starts to appear in the penumbra and continues to rise as the magnetic field strength rises. Because OH forms at a lower temperature than H2, its presence implies the quantity of hydrogen molecules that could be present (B). (adapted from Jaeggli et al, 2012)

One theory is that hydrogen atoms combining into hydrogen molecules may be responsible. As for our Sun, the majority of hydrogen is ionized atoms because the average surface temperature is assessed at 5780K (9944 deg. F). However, since Sol is considered a “cool star”, researchers have found indications of heavy-element molecules in the solar spectrum – including surprising water vapor. These type of findings might prove the umbral regions could allow hydrogen molecules to combine in the surface layers – a prediction of 5% made by the late Professor Per E. Maltby and colleagues at the University of Oslo. This type of shift could cause drastic dynamic changes where gas pressure is concerned.

“The formation of a large fraction of molecules may have important effects on the thermodynamic properties of the solar atmosphere and the physics of sunspots,” Jaeggli wrote.

With direct measurements being beyond our current capabilities, the team then measured a proxy – the hydroxyl radical made of one atom each of hydrogen and oxygen (OH). According to the National Solar Observatory, “OH dissociates (breaks into atoms) at a slightly lower temperature than H2, meaning H2 can also form in regions where OH is present. By coincidence, one of its infrared spectral lines is 1565.2nm, almost the same as the 1565nm line of iron, used for measuring magnetism in a spot and one of the lines FIRS is designed to observe.”

Spectral lines are the unique "fingerprints in light" that all atoms and molecules produce. In the presence of a magnetic field in a hot gas, some lines split, betraying the presence and strength of the magnetic fields. Each line corresponds to electrons giving up energy in discrete amounts, or quanta, as light. Imposing a magnetic field on the atom makes the electrons produce multiple lines instead of one. The spread of these lines is a direct measure of the strength of the magnetic field, and is greater in the red and in the infrared spectrum. This image depicts sunspot spectra taken by FIRS with lines centered at 630.2nm (left) and 1564.8nm (right). Note the broadened area in the color ellipses, indicating line splitting inside a spot, and how the broadening is greater at the longer wavelength. Contrast is adjusted to enhance visibility in the inset boxes.

By combining both old and new data, the team measured magnetic fields across sunspots, and the OH intensity inside spots, judging the H2 concentrations. “We found evidence that significant quantities of hydrogen molecules form in sunspots that are able to maintain magnetic fields stronger than 2,500 Gauss,” Jaeggli commented. She also said its presence leads to a temporary “runaway” intensification of the magnetic field.

As for the anatomy of a sunspot, magnetic flux boils up from the Sun’s interior and slows surface convection – which in turns stops cooler gas which has radiated its heat into space. From there, molecular hydrogen is created, reducing the volume. Because it is more transparent than its atomic counterpart, its energy is also radiated into space allowing the gas to cool even more. At this point the hot gas primed by the flux compresses the cooler region and intensifies the magnetic field. “Eventually it levels out, partly from energy radiating in from the surrounding gas. Otherwise, the spot would grow without bounds. As the magnetic field weakens, the H2 and OH molecules heat up and dissociate back to atoms, compressing the remaining cool regions and keeping the spot from collapsing.”

For now, the team admits that additional computer modeling is required to validate their observations and that most of the active regions so far have been mild ones. They’re hoping that Sunspot Cycle 24 will give them more fuel to be “cool”…

Original Story Source: National Solar Observatory News Release.

Giant Sunspot Turns to Face the Earth

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What has been billed as the largest sunspot observed in several years has now rotated around to stare straight at Earth. How large is it? Active Region 1339 and the group of sunspots adjacent to it extends more than 100,000 km from end to end and each of the several dark cores is larger than Earth. The now very active Sun has already blasted out several medium- to large-sized solar flares and has the potential to hurl out more.

And the Sun is now dotted with several smaller sunspots as well. Above is an amazing image of all this activity, as captured by astrophotographer Alan Friedman. “This has been a glorious week for solar observers!” Friedman said. “Led by large sunspot region AR1339, the sun’s disk is alive with activity… the most dynamic show in many years.”

Take a look below for an incredible closeup of AR1339 taken by Friedman, as well as a movie from the Solar Dynamics Observatory showing the sunspots rotating into view.

Click on the image for a larger version on Friedman’s website, AvertedImagination.com

From all this activity, there may be a good chance for viewing aurorae. On November 9 at around 1330 UT, a magnetic filament in the vicinity of sunspot complex 1342-1343 erupted, producing a M1-class solar flare and hurling a CME into space, which will probably deliver a glancing blow to Earth’s magnetic field on Nov 11 or 12, according to SpaceWeather.com

A portrait of Active Region 1339 in the wavelength of hydrogen alpha light showing the large sunspot group and the maelstrom of chromosphere that surrounds it. Credit Alan Friedman

And here’s an image from astrophotographer Raymond Gilchrist showing a labeled version of all the current sunspots: 1338, 1339, 1340, 1341, 1342, 1343, 1344.

The 'spotty' Sun on Nov. 10, 2011. Credit: Raymond Gilchrist. Click for version on Flickr.

Raymond used a Baader Solar Continuum Filter and Thousand Oaks Full Solar Filter with a Skywatcher 120mm S/T Refractor,
with a Canon 350D, 1/15th Sec Exp. at ISO400. You can see more of his images at his Flickr page.

Largest Sunspot in Years Now on the Sun

One of the largest sunspots in years is now visible, rotating around into view on the Sun’s limb on November 3, 2011. And it’s a feisty one, too. The Solar Dynamics Observatory team called Active Region 1339 a “Bad Boy,” as at 20:27 UTC, a solar flare peaked at X1.9. X-class flares are massive, and can be major events that can trigger planet-wide radio blackouts and long-lasting radiation storms. This region is not facing Earth — yet. But we’ll be keeping on eye on it as it turns toward an Earth-facing direction.

See a full-Sun image from SDO below.

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This sunspot is huge, measuring some 40,000 km wide and at over 80,000 in length. Spaceweather.com said two or three of the sunspot’s dark cores are wider than Earth itself.

Earth Vs. Stuff from the Sun

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The Sun is big. And comparatively, Earth is a tiny Lilliputian. We’ve all seen images comparing the size of Earth to the Sun, but here are two images from October 10, 2011 that really bring home the size-scale of features on the Sun when compared to the size of Earth. Amateur astronomer Ron Cottrell from Oro Valley, Arizona took these images of two different features on the the Sun yesterday, overlaying the size of the Earth for reference. Both are viewed in Hydrogen- Alpha light, and the first is a fiery-looking huge prominence from the northwest limb of the Sun. Yikes!

Below, see a comparison of Earth to a current sunspot:

The Earth compared to Sunspot 1312 on 10-10-11. Credit: Ron Cottrell.

This is sunspot 1312 which has a classic sunspot shape with a core a that’s larger than the Earth.

Ron used a 40mm Coronado telescope and a webcam to capture the images. He explains the colors of the Sun in Hydrogen-Alpha, and in particular why the prominence appears fiery red:

“The red color of the prominence is very close to the color collected in the image. The yellow disk is enhanced. I actually capture the disk image in black and white and add the color. I can choose any color. The final image is a composite of two separate images. Prominences are, in general, much fainter than the bright disk. Therefore, the prominence image is captured at a slower shutter speed, e.g. 1/25 sec, compared to the disk image captured at 1/100 sec. The two images are combined in PhotoShop.”

You can see more of Ron’s handiwork on his Flickr page.

And speaking of the Sun, activity on our closest star has been ramping up and last week a series of active regions were lined up one after the other across the upper half of the Sun. Interestingly, the Solar Dynamics Observatory was able to capture how these regions twisted and interacted with each other. The video shows activity from Sept. 28 – Oct. 2, 2011, as seen in extreme UV light. The magnetically intense active regions sported coils of arcing loops and numerous times these magnetic field lines above them can be seen connecting with the active region next door. Towards the end of the clip, a leading active region blasted out a coronal mass ejection, quickly succeeded by a blast from another active region. The disruption of the magnetic field from one likely triggered the second, a phenomenon that has been observed before by SDO.