Science

A giant plasma cloud erupts from the Sun, but fortunately won’t hit the Earth

A giant cloud of magnetized plasma has erupted from a sunspot hidden on the far side of the Sun that could turn to face Earth in just two days, so get ready for some solar fireworks.

The explosion, which came from behind the eastern edge of the Sun early Tuesday morning (January 3), was a so-called coronal mass ejection (CME), an ejection of particles from the Sun’s upper atmosphere, or corona. The CME was accompanied by a powerful solar flare that lasted six hours, solar scientist Keith Strong said on Twitter. (will open in a new tab).

Neither the flare nor the CME was directed at Earth, but experts warn that the hidden sunspot that caused them will soon be in front of the planet as the sun rotates.

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The Solar and Heliospheric Observatory (SOHO) captured a powerful coronal mass ejection erupting from the Sun. (Image credit: NASA/ESA)

Sunspots are darker regions in the Sun’s lower atmosphere that are colder than the rest of the solar disk and have dense and winding magnetic field lines. When these magnetic field lines break, sunspots emit solar flares in the form of bright bursts of light and CMEs. Solar flares travel at the speed of light and reach our planet within eight minutes if directed at it. CMEs, on the other hand, move through space more slowly, arriving within two to three days. Solar flares can disrupt radio communications on our planet without warning, but what experts fear most is CMEs. The magnetized plasma from the CME interacts with the Earth’s magnetic field, causing all sorts of undesirable effects on technology, including power outages, GPS malfunctions, and satellite malfunctions. These interactions, however, are also responsible for the mesmerizing displays of the aurora borealis or auroras.

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Yesterday’s flare and CME were detected by several solar observing spacecraft, including the joint NASA/ESA Solar and Heliospheric Observatory (SOHO) mission and NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory.

The measurements helped scientists determine that the sunspot, or active region that caused the flares, would move into the Earth-facing part of the solar disk within two days, reports Space Weather. (will open in a new tab). In fact, the active region may already be known to solar researchers. In December, a sunspot called AR3163, at that time larger than our planet, crossed the solar disk and disappeared from view about two weeks ago. This sunspot is expected to reappear and scientists believe it may have gotten even more powerful since we last saw it.

Meanwhile, plasma from a CME erupted by the Sun on December 30 reached Earth today (January 4), triggering a small geomagnetic storm that could make the auroras visible a little further from their usual location around the poles.

Britain’s Met Office space weather service is predicting low solar activity over the next couple of days, with a potential increase expected by the end of this week when a mysterious sunspot appears on the Sun’s eastern edge.

Follow Tereza Pultarova on Twitter @TerezaPultarova. Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom and on Facebook.

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