Back in December, a NASA space telescope caught a glimpse of a tremendous scene: a cascading series of solar flares arching around the sun’s magnetic field. Now, the space agency has released a video of the action, showing a little slice of the constant broiling on the surface of the sun.
The Sun may seem tranquil from our place almost 93 million miles away, but up close it’s a whole different story—jets of solar plasma and radiation spurt from its surface. The delicate, dark lines that crawl across the Sun are called solar filaments, which are enormous plumes of electrified gas. They appear dark because they are slightly cooler than the the solar surface.
In this event captured on video by NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory, a solar filament becomes unstable and collapses, triggering the eruption of massive solar plasma arches. The solar plasma travels across the sun’s magnetic field, the tendrils of charged particles twisting and writhing before collapsing back.
The only reason we can see these spectacular magnetic arches is because NASA scientists colorized the video to highlight these details. The sun glows in the ultraviolet spectrum, which is invisible to the human eye, Miriam Kramer writes for Mashable.
While the magnetic arches seen here collapsed back into the sun, these explosions can be strong enough to jettison solar material out into space. If we were unlucky enough to be in its path, these solar flares can be so powerful that they could potentially overload power grids and shut down communications systems here on Earth, Kelly Dickerson writes for Tech Insider.
One famous example, 1859’s Carrington Event, was so powerful that it triggered colorful auroras that could be seen as far south as the tropics and made telegraph systems worldwide go haywire. Some telegraph operators reported being shocked by electrical discharge and witnessing telegraph paper catch fire, Trudy E. Bell and Tony Phillips wrote for NASA in 2008. If the Earth got caught in a similarly strong solar storm today (like the one that narrowly missed us in 2012), it could wreak havoc on our modern electrical systems.
In recent years, NASA has been working on a way to protect Earthbound electrical systems from these massive solar storms, Dickerson reports. Luckily, the magnetic arches seen in NASA’s new video weren’t strong enough to cause any damage here on Earth, though they can give us a glimpse at the amazing activity raging on the surface of our life-giving star.