Over the weekend the Sun let go with a relatively decent-sized flare and prominence: a towering ejection of matter from its surface. At the time, I couldn't find an embeddable version of the video, but happily Goddard Space Flight Center (my old stomping ground!) put one up on Flickr. So feast your eyes on this incredible video of the event as seen by NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory on February 24, 2011:
In the immortal words of noted solar astrophysicist Christopher Walken: wowee wow wow!
[Edited to add: I should've been more clear in my post title that this is a flare and a prominence, and in fact the motion of the material in the video is the prominence.]
Details of the science of what you're seeing are expounded upon in a previous post on solar flares. The sunspot that triggered this was on the edge of the Sun, so weren't in any danger (and wouldn't have been even had it been aimed at us; this was a class M 3.6 flare, well below what the Sun is capable of). This video shows the Sun in the ultraviolet, where magnetic activity reveals itself well. You can see the material racing up the magnetic field of the sunspot and erupting into space. I was particularly impressed with the shock wave of material you can see moving toward the bottom at the very beginning of the event. And note this isn't a single, short impulse; energy keeps getting pumped into the flare in a series of magnificent episodes.
Watch the material itself; some clearly leaves the Sun forever, while some falls back to the surface. The scale of this is almost beyond comprehension... the entire Earth would be a smallish dot on this scale.
Over the next couple of years we can expect the Sun's activity to increase, and just in time we have SDO to take high-resolution images of it. We'll be getting even more video like this, and I can guarantee it'll get even more spectacular as time goes on.
- KABLAM! Footage of the X-class solar flare
- Sunspot 1158 ain't done yet
- First earthward-heading solar flare of the cycle
- A huge looping prominence on the Sun
Credit: NASA/GSFC/SDO. Tip' o the welder's goggles to Matt Lovelace for pointing me to the GSFC Flickr page.