Drops of Plasma Fire Rain Down on the Sun in Stunning Video

The entire universe in blog form
Feb. 21 2013 1:00 PM

All That Plasma Will Be Lost in Time, Like Tears in Rain

Coronal rain on the Sun
Towering loops of plasma raining down on the Sun, with the Earth thrown in for comparison. Click to embiggen.

Image credit: NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center/SDO

If you look at our Sun the right way, it is magnificent. For proof, I offer this stunningly beautiful video of the nearest star taken on July 19, 2012 by NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory. If you can watch this without your jaw hanging open and your mind aflame with wonder, then I cannot help you.

Phil Plait Phil Plait

Phil Plait writes Slate’s Bad Astronomy blog and is an astronomer, public speaker, science evangelizer, and author of Death From the Skies!  

What you’re seeing is the profound impact of magnetism on the material in the Sun. I’ve described this effect before (with lots of juicy details here), but in a nutshell: The gas inside the Sun is so hot it’s ionized, stripped of electrons. When that happens it’s more beholden to magnetism than gravity, and when the magnetic field lines pierce the Sun’s surface they form loops along which the ionized gas (called plasma) flows along them.

Advertisement

The bright flare happens when the stored magnetic energy erupts outward, usually due to what is essentially a short-circuit in the field. That happens near the beginning of the video, and is so bright it saturates SDO’s detectors (and you can see repeated ghost images to the upper left and right of the flare as the light reflects inside SDO’s optics). Then things settle down, and that’s when the beauty really begins: The plasma flows down the loops, raining down onto the Sun’s surface.

And it goes on and on. This video represents a total elapsed time of over 21 hours.* The energy flowing along those magnetic loops is immense, enough to power our entire planet for many millennia. Note the part about a minute in when the size of the Earth is shown for comparison. Incredible.

Although this looks like fire, it’s not. The images used to make this video are in the far ultraviolet, showing gas at a temperature of nearly 100,000° Celsius (180,000° F). The color is added after the fact to make details easier to see—but those fiery red, yellows, and oranges do tickle the imagination, don’t they? The color adds to the impression of dancing energy and heat.

That barely constrained violence can be difficult to square with the grace and elegance of the motion. The Sun can damage our civilization, yet we also depend on it for our existence. But there you go: The Universe is full of such dichotomies.

It is harsh, inhospitable, destructive, and capable of crushing indifference.

It is pleasing, habitable, serene, and capable of life-altering beauty.

I wouldn’t have it any other way.


* [Correction: I had originally said this eruption lasted over nine hours. While technically correct, it actually went on for over 21 hours.] 

TODAY IN SLATE

Foreigners

More Than Scottish Pride

Scotland’s referendum isn’t about nationalism. It’s about a system that failed, and a new generation looking to take a chance on itself. 

What Charles Barkley Gets Wrong About Corporal Punishment and Black Culture

Why Greenland’s “Dark Snow” Should Worry You

Three Talented Actresses in Three Terrible New Shows

Why Do Some People See the Virgin Mary in Grilled Cheese?

The science that explains the human need to find meaning in coincidences.

Jurisprudence

Happy Constitution Day!

Too bad it’s almost certainly unconstitutional.

Is It Worth Paying Full Price for the iPhone 6 to Keep Your Unlimited Data Plan? We Crunch the Numbers.

What to Do if You Literally Get a Bug in Your Ear

  News & Politics
Weigel
Sept. 16 2014 7:03 PM Kansas Secretary of State Loses Battle to Protect Senator From Tough Race
  Business
Moneybox
Sept. 16 2014 4:16 PM The iPhone 6 Marks a Fresh Chance for Wireless Carriers to Kill Your Unlimited Data
  Life
The Eye
Sept. 16 2014 12:20 PM These Outdoor Cat Shelters Have More Style Than the Average Home
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 15 2014 3:31 PM My Year As an Abortion Doula
  Slate Plus
Slate Plus Video
Sept. 16 2014 2:06 PM A Farewell From Emily Bazelon The former senior editor talks about her very first Slate pitch and says goodbye to the magazine.
  Arts
Brow Beat
Sept. 16 2014 8:43 PM This 17-Minute Tribute to David Fincher Is the Perfect Preparation for Gone Girl
  Technology
Future Tense
Sept. 16 2014 6:40 PM This iPhone 6 Feature Will Change Weather Forecasting
  Health & Science
Medical Examiner
Sept. 16 2014 11:46 PM The Scariest Campfire Story More horrifying than bears, snakes, or hook-handed killers.
  Sports
Sports Nut
Sept. 15 2014 9:05 PM Giving Up on Goodell How the NFL lost the trust of its most loyal reporters.