Monster Sunspot Turns Toward Earth

The entire universe in blog form
Jan. 6 2014 1:15 PM

Monster Sunspot Turns Toward Earth

A few days ago, a sunspot appeared over the western edge of the Sun. Dark and foreboding, like a malevolent eye, Active Region 1944 (or just AR1944) is huge, actually a cluster of more than 60 individual sunspots, one of which is far, far larger than the Earth itself.

It’s been cloudy here in Boulder, Colo., the past few days, but this morning it cleared up. I rigged a solar filter for my camera using some safe solar filter glasses given to me by my buddy Stephen Ramsden and went outside to brave the cold and get some shots. Here’s the best one:

sunspot
Using a safe solar filter, I was able to capture the huge sunspot currently marring the face of the Sun.

Photo by Phil Plait

Advertisement

As you can see, the main sunspot is a bruiser. I’d estimate it as four times the diameter of Earth, or about 50,000 kilometers (32,000 miles) across—big enough to see without magnification! In fact, using “Eclipse Shades,” which are rated safe for solar viewing, I was able to see the spot easily myself. I urge folks to get a pair or three of these glasses; they’re very inexpensive and you never know when you’ll get a chance to see a monster sunspot like this one. Remember, don’t try to look at the Sun without adequate protection, and NEVER look a the Sun through binoculars or a telescope unless someone who really knows what they're doing set it up for you.

If you’re still having trouble picturing how ridiculously big this spot is, then maybe this observation of it by the space-based Solar Dynamics Observatory will help:

SDO picture of a sunspot
Active Region 1944, bigger than worlds.

Photo by NASA /SDO/Helioviewer.org

Holy magnetic bottling! That shot shows the whole active region with the Earth thrown in for scale. Even the “smallish” spots are the size of our planet.

Sunspots are areas where the Sun’s magnetic field is very active. In a nutshell, parcels of hot, ionized gas inside the Sun are buoyant and rise up (like hot air balloons). Usually they reach the surface, cool, and sink back down (this process is called convection). However, these bubbles of gas can have strong magnetic fields embedded in them, and when a bubble reaches the surface of the Sun, its magnetic field can interact with those of other bubbles. This can act like a trap, preventing the bubble from sinking once it cools. The Sun glows due to its heat, and a cooler patch will therefore look darker.

Voilà. Sunspot.

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!  

Staying up top on the Sun comes with a price, however. Magnetic field lines store vast amounts of energy, and if the lines get tangled up with those from other bubbles (or turbulence in the spot itself twists them up) they can snap, releasing that energy. This can trigger a solar flare, an explosion so powerful it dwarfs our entire nuclear arsenal into insignificance. It may also blast out a coronal mass ejection (CME), an eruption of billions of tons of subatomic particles screaming outward at hundreds or even thousands of kilometers per second.

Here's video taken in the far-ultraviolet showing several flares erupting on the Sun in May 2013:

In general, the impact on Earth from these events is minimal; usually they just spark beautiful aurorae. However, if they’re big enough, CMEs and flares can cause havoc here. They can send power surges through satellites, causing them to shut down. They can also interact with Earth’s magnetic field, causing radio interference and even power grid failure; a CME in 1989 caused a widespread blackout in Quebec, leaving people without electricity for days.

AR1944 has already been popping off flares, and the Space Weather Prediction Center rates this spot as having a 60 percent chance of making M-class (moderate) flares, and a 25 percent chance of creating stronger X-class flares in the next few days. In fact, one previous medium-sized flare occurred on Jan. 4, which triggered a CME that's headed for Earth. SpaceWeather.com has great video of it. This CME is not that strong (it’s expected to only set off a G1 class geomagnetic storm), but it might induce aurorae. If you live at high latitudes (and the air around you isn’t freezing out onto the ground), you might want to get out tomorrow night (Jan. 7) and take a look. Stay warm and be careful!

I may try to get more and better pictures of this sunspot as well. AR1944 will be on the earthward facing side of the Sun for another week until the Sun’s rotation sweeps it around to the other side of the star. Until then, we’ll have a great view of this enormous spot.

TODAY IN SLATE

Doublex

Crying Rape

False rape accusations exist, and they are a serious problem.

Scotland Is Just the Beginning. Expect More Political Earthquakes in Europe.

I Bought the Huge iPhone. I’m Already Thinking of Returning It.

The Music Industry Is Ignoring Some of the Best Black Women Singing R&B

How Will You Carry Around Your Huge New iPhone? Apple Pants!

Medical Examiner

The Most Terrifying Thing About Ebola 

The disease threatens humanity by preying on humanity.

Television

The Other Huxtable Effect

Thirty years ago, The Cosby Show gave us one of TV’s great feminists.

Lifetime Didn’t Find the Steubenville Rape Case Dramatic Enough. So They Added a Little Self-Immolation.

No, New York Times, Shonda Rhimes Is Not an “Angry Black Woman” 

Brow Beat
Sept. 19 2014 1:39 PM Shonda Rhimes Is Not an “Angry Black Woman,” New York Times. Neither Are Her Characters.
Behold
Sept. 19 2014 1:11 PM An Up-Close Look at the U.S.–Mexico Border
  News & Politics
Weigel
Sept. 19 2014 9:15 PM Chris Christie, Better Than Ever
  Business
Moneybox
Sept. 19 2014 6:35 PM Pabst Blue Ribbon is Being Sold to the Russians, Was So Over Anyway
  Life
Inside Higher Ed
Sept. 19 2014 1:34 PM Empty Seats, Fewer Donors? College football isn’t attracting the audience it used to.
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 19 2014 4:58 PM Steubenville Gets the Lifetime Treatment (And a Cheerleader Erupts Into Flames)
  Slate Plus
Slate Picks
Sept. 19 2014 12:00 PM What Happened at Slate This Week? The Slatest editor tells us to read well-informed skepticism, media criticism, and more.
  Arts
Brow Beat
Sept. 19 2014 4:48 PM You Should Be Listening to Sbtrkt
  Technology
Future Tense
Sept. 19 2014 6:31 PM The One Big Problem With the Enormous New iPhone
  Health & Science
Medical Examiner
Sept. 19 2014 5:09 PM Did America Get Fat by Drinking Diet Soda?   A high-profile study points the finger at artificial sweeteners.
  Sports
Sports Nut
Sept. 18 2014 11:42 AM Grandmaster Clash One of the most amazing feats in chess history just happened, and no one noticed.