Yesterday I posted a video showing a cluster of sunspots forming on the Sun's surface. As it happens, a new video was released last night from NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory satellite showing this same sunspot group, but this time, along with the visible light images, we also get X-ray images. X-rays are emitted by plasma trapped in magnetic fields, so in a sense you can actually see the magnetism of the sunspots as they evolve. Watch!
How awesome is that? The full disk picture on the left combines visible and X-ray light, the lower right shows the spots in just visible light, and the upper right is just X-rays. You can see the magnetic field lines looping from one part of the sunspot cluster to another as the plasma follows them. If you look carefully, you'll see flashes of brightness, too: those are solar flares!
The magnetic field stores energy. If the loops get tangled together, they can snap and release their energy in one sudden burst (like a box full of mousetraps, if you happened to see my episode of "Bad Universe" on Discovery Channel yesterday). What's interesting about this video is that it shows that the rotation of the sunspots plays into this too.
Imagine a bunch of magnetic field lines coming from a spot, going up above the Sun's surface, then back down to another spot. If the spot is rotating, that cluster of loops will get twisted up, just like a rubber band gets twisted when you rotate one end (do you kids these days still play with balsa wood airplanes that use a rubber band to spin the propeller? It's just like that).
If the loops get too twisted, they'll snap, too, and kablam! Solar flare. Remember, this was the biggest flare seen in several years, so apparently having several rotating spots feeding into the system really pumps a lot of energy into the loops. That makes sense, and it means that clusters of spots may be the ones we should keep our eyes on if we want to catch big flares in the act.
Video credit: Movie produced by D. Brown (UCLan). Data courtesy of NASA/SDO and the AIA, EVE, and HMI science teams.