SDO sees ‘Dark Fireworks’ on the Sun

From Science@ NASA:  On June 7, 2011, Earth-orbiting satellites detected a flash of X-rays coming from the western edge of the solar disk. Registering only “M” (for medium) on the Richter scale of solar flares, the blast at first appeared to be a run-of-the-mill eruption–that is, until researchers looked at the movies.

“We’d never seen anything like it,” says Alex Young, a solar physicist at the Goddard Space Flight Center. “Half of the sun appeared to be blowing itself to bits.”

NASA has just released new high-resolution videos of the event recorded by the Solar Dynamics Observatory (SDO). The videos are large, typically 50 MB to 100 MB, but worth the wait to download. Click on the arrow to launch the first movie, then scroll down for commentary:

(Youtube file is smaller, faster h/t to reader “Amino Acids in Meteoroites”
A close-up of the June 7th eruption shows dark blobs of plasma falling ballistically toward the surface of the sun. [99 MB Quicktime] [more]

“IN terms of raw power, this really was just a medium-sized eruption,” says Young, “but it had a uniquely dramatic appearance caused by all the inky-dark material. We don’t usually see that.”

Solar physicist Angelos Vourlidas of the Naval Research Lab in Washington DC calls it a case of “dark fireworks.”

“The blast was triggered by an unstable magnetic filament near the sun’s surface,” he explains. “That filament was loaded down with cool1 plasma, which exploded in a spray of dark blobs and streamers.”

Dark Fireworks (guided, 200px)

Plasma blobs are funneled toward sunspots by magnetic fields. [67 MB Quicktime] [more]

The plasma blobs were as big as planets, many larger than Earth. They rose and fell ballistically, moving under the influence of the sun’s gravity like balls tossed in the air, exploding “like bombs” when they hit the stellar surface.

Some blobs, however, were more like guided missiles. “In the movies we can see material ‘grabbed’ by magnetic fields and funneled toward sunspot groups hundreds of thousands of kilometers away,” notes Young.

SDO also detected a shadowy shock wave issuing from the blast site. The ‘solar tsunami’ propagated more than halfway across the sun, visibly shaking filaments and loops of magnetism en route. [91 MB Quicktime]

Long-range action has become a key theme of solar physics since SDO was launched in 2010. The observatory frequently sees explosions in one part of the sun affecting other parts. Sometimes one explosion will trigger another … and another … with a domino sequence of flares going off all around the star.

“The June 7th blast didn’t seem to trigger any big secondary explosions, but it was certainly felt far and wide,” says Young.

Dark Fireworks (circular wave, 558px)

This 13 MB extreme ultraviolet movie of the explosion shows a ‘solar tsunami’ wave billowing away from the blast site. [13 MB Quicktime] [more]

It’s tempting to look at the movies and conclude that most of the exploded material fell back–but that wouldn’t be true, according to Vourlidas. “The blast also propelled a significant coronal mass ejection (CME) out of the sun’s atmosphere.”

He estimates that the cloud massed about 4.5 x1015 grams, placing it in the top 5% of all CMEs recorded in the Space Age. For comparison, the most massive CME ever recorded was 1016 grams, only a factor of ~2 greater than the June 7th cloud.2 The amount of material that fell back to the sun on June 7th was approximately equal to the amount that flew away, Vourlidas says.

As remarkable as the June 7th eruption seems to be, Young says it might not be so rare. “In fact,” he says, “it might be downright common.”

Before SDO, space-based observatories observed the sun with relatively slow cadences and/or limited fields of view. They could have easily missed the majesty of such an explosion, catching only a single off-center snapshot at the beginning or end of the blast to hint at what actually happened.

If Young is right, more dark fireworks could be in the offing.  Stay tuned.
Author: Dr. Tony Phillips | Credit: Science@NASA

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35 thoughts on “SDO sees ‘Dark Fireworks’ on the Sun

  1. Sigh. It has been known for many decades that most of the material in the corona ‘rains’ down on the sun, and this goes for eruptions too: more than half falls right back again [the Sun's gravity is strong]. Even the press release said so:
    ‘As remarkable as the June 7th eruption seems to be, Young says it might not be so rare. “In fact,” he says, “it might be downright common.”’

  2. What a grotesque mis-interpretation of the intent of Young’s remark. He’s commenting that it represents a potentially important NEW finding.

  3. “Half of the sun appeared to be blowing itself to bits.”

    Umm.

    I think I’ll go back to bed.

  4. ‘Dark Fireworks’, unstable magnetic filament explosion, June 7, 2011 event at YouTube

  5. So this seething bubbling lump is what we rely on to heat our little planet?
    Looks mighty unstable to me.

  6. LOL Way to burst my bubble, Leif.

    Here I was thinking how cool this was and you come along and point out that its nothing new. Oh well, I guess its all been done after all.

    Still, its a refreshing break from other forms of mainstream science (if you can pardon the expression). Pure/real/objective science is still something that I can’t help but love in spite of how much it has been hijacked over the years (and not just by global warming alarmists – even that was done before…)

  7. Yep….”half of the sun blowing itself to bits…” Just spent all night replacing two spindle bearings on my lawn mower, and now *this*.

  8. David Davidovics says:
    July 12, 2011 at 11:18 pm
    Here I was thinking how cool this was and you come along and point out that its nothing new. Oh well, I guess its all been done after all.
    Sometimes each new generation has to rediscover old truths. Generally, beware of press releases gushing that something is ‘never before seen’.

  9. Leif Svalgaard says: (July 13, 2011 at 12:05 am)
    Sometimes each new generation has to rediscover old truths.

    A moment before I read your comment, Leif, I was actually re-inventing the stump-jump plow. Just for my own interest. mind you, and to reinforce my admiration for the frustrated plowman who did.

  10. Leif- ‘Generally, beware of press releases gushing that something is ‘never before seen’’

    That maybe because, literally, these images have never before been seen !

    As in the article –
    “Before SDO, space-based observatories observed the sun with relatively slow cadences and/or limited fields of view. They could have easily missed the majesty of such an explosion, catching only a single off-center snapshot at the beginning or end of the blast to hint at what actually happened”

    Previous images were random snapshots compared to these.

  11. Although it’s nothing new to the Sun, SDO is giving us glimpses of its activity that have never been seen in such detail before.

    Spectacular!

  12. It hasn’t been ever seen like that before, in full detail and glory. Truly magnificent and terrifying.

    It seems that Dr. Svalgaard not only lacks any sense of humor (as proven by his previous posts) but any sense of wonder as well. What a killjoy.

  13. Perhaps because of the meek sunspots (suppressed by ‘unknown’ cause) more of the ‘pent-up’ energy is released in these occasional outbursts (just a suggestion; wrong? yes/no. ok.)

  14. I think I understand Leif’s comment, based on a comment from someone else about single snapshots. In the “Old Days”, people sat and watched the Sun in real time using telescopes. So, yes, things like this have been seen before, just not on digital images for instant playback.

  15. The Solar Dynamics Observatory AIA imager (observing in extreme ultraviolet light) actually spotted a sun-grazing comet as it disintegrated over about a 15-minute period on July 6, something never observed before. The angle of the comet’s orbit brought it across the front half of the sun. Given the intense heat and radiation, the comet simply evaporated away. The comet was probably a member of the Kreutz sun-grazer family.

    http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/43729531/ns/technology_and_science-space/

  16. Reminds me of this…

    “If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?”

    So modern day observations, rather than computer modeling, are useful after all, albeit repeated. I think this is a problem in the modern, instant, video clip world we live in. How many millions of mobile devices with cameras and internet connections are in use capturing “weather events” instantly spat out across YouTube and the MSM?

  17. I’m not a big fan of the electric universe, but after the ejections rained back on the surface, the shock waves from lots of them sure looked like lightning .

  18. “We’d never seen anything like it,” says Alex Young, a solar physicist at the Goddard Space Flight Center. “Half of the sun appeared to be blowing itself to bits.”

    The problem with press releases is that they have to be written up to be interesting to a larger crowd, so you get remarks like this one and more sober remarks are left out because they’re boring.

    And then “We’d never seen anything like it…” is often mentally expanded, by the reader (or MSM writer,) to “It’s Unprecendented!!!” “It’s Never Happened Before!!!”

    Adding the “… in the very few years that we’ve been observing such things…” is boring.

    Still, this event has probably only happened a few billion times before…

  19. jazznick says:
    July 13, 2011 at 1:12 am
    “Previous images were random snapshots compared to these.”

    A couple of years ago I came face-to-face with a Cinnamon Colored (Black) Bear. With a Nikon D40X, I took several digital color random snapshots. A high quality movie would have been interesting – still the likely result if a camera purchase were made today. 50 years ago the encounter might have yielded a single black/white photo. 150 years ago there would have been a verbal report. Beware of but rejoice in better reporting.

  20. Roger Carr says:
    July 13, 2011 at 12:27 am

    Leif, I was actually re-inventing the stump-jump plow.

    Fishermen will recognize this plow as the immortal “weedless” hook. Roger thanks for the nostalgia moment. GK

  21. Not previously seen or visible through telescopes; note the placidity of the visible spectrum photo. Only evident in particular wavelengths. So this particular scope of the phenomenon has NOT been known and previously observed. While the Sun may do it every month or twenty, its power and pattern is new to science.

    Notwithstanding the need of certain scientific poseurs to persistently assert omniscience, personally and on behalf of the Consensus.

  22. Leif Svalgaard says:
    Generally, beware of press releases gushing that something is ‘never before seen’.

    The problem, I believe, is not so much in saying “never before seen” – especially when the statement is factually correct – as it is in the all-too-common interpretation of those words to mean never before happened. For some reason, far too many are unable to make the distinction.

  23. Alexander Feht says:
    July 13, 2011 at 2:02 am
    It seems that Dr. Svalgaard not only lacks any sense of humor (as proven by his previous posts) but any sense of wonder as well. What a killjoy.
    You never miss a chance to foul your mouth…

  24. It’s obvious. It’s not plasma at all – it’s the sun’s ejected iron core following the magnetic force lines back to the surface.

  25. Don’t you all realise? The sun’s mighty angry at all your CO2 emissions that have reached all the way to the sun!!!

  26. “You never miss a chance to foul your mouth…”
    “killjoy” counts as foul mouthed? I must be a sailor or something.

    Regardless of some people thinking this is a nothing event I for one find it fascinating. Just thinking about the grand scale of this puts me in awe. Many of those chunks are larger than planets. That’s wild IMHO.

  27. William Mason says:
    July 14, 2011 at 9:58 am
    “killjoy” counts as foul mouthed? I must be a sailor or something.
    The SDO pictures are indeed spectacular. The foulness is in commenting on persons rather than on science.

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