On January 8, 2014 our nearest star, the Sun, made headline news after producing an enormous flare. A flare? I’ll explain, but first a little background.
The Sun runs through an eleven-year sunspot cycle. Sunspots appear as dark spots in the Sun’s outer visible layer. By noting the position, size and number of sunspots you can determine how active the Sun is. This past year the Sun has been very active. Along with more sunspots, there are more eruptions or flares of highly energized atomic particles or plasma. Furthermore, these flares can be associated with a large plume. This is known as a coronal mass ejection or CME. A CME of plasma can rival the size of the Sun itself!
The highly energized particles of a CME shoot out into space at supersonic speeds. One million meters per second or more is possible. That is like travelling from New York City to Los Angeles in just over three seconds or less!
Now the reason the Sun made news is that the charged particles from the flare and CME front were scheduled to reach Earth late afternoon (USA Eastern Standard Time) on Thursday, January 9. The solar storm was predicted to last into the evening that day and possibly into the following day. Space weather predictions like this are important because solar storms can interfere with satellites in orbit or even worse, with electrical
power distribution here on the surface.
On Thursday, January 9 a number of students, teachers and administrators from the Lowville Academy and Central School (Lowville, NY USA) got to safely peer at the Sun through a telescope fitted with a hydrogen-alpha filter (Never directly view the Sun on your own without a proper filter, designed for solar observation.). Perhaps you were
one of them and saw a group of sunspots, spanning many Earth diameters in size. It was from this active sunspot region that the solar flare erupted in the first place. Keeping an eye on active regions like this for a space weather report is analogous to a meteorologist analyzing atmospheric data here on Earth.
The solar storm was initially predicted to be strong enough to make the northern lights or aurora borealis visible as far south as the mid-latitudes of Earth. Usually the aurora is only visible nearer the magnetic poles of Earth. The aurora occurs when the highly charged particles of the solar storm collide with the Earth’s upper atmosphere. Energized oxygen atoms, for instance, shed their burst of energy by emitting green light. Other aurora colors are possible too.
For those of us south of the Arctic Circle or north of the Antarctic Circle the solar storm was not as direct and/or powerful as predicted and we did not see any aurora. Folks in
Norway, however, saw quite a display. For those of us who had clear skies and no aurora, the galaxy of stars was still spectacular!
NASA Solar Dynamics Observatory time-lapse movie of the Sun from January 7-8, 2014. Watch the central active bright region. You will see the bright flare!
your school, museum or community!!