- NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory captured a video of a tornado churning on the sun.
- The fiery formation of boiling solar plasma grew to an estimated height of 14 Earths.
- It began forming on March 14, and burst into a cloud of magnetized gas on March 18.
NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory captured video of a fiery, churning tornado on the surface of the sun last week.
The tornado-shaped prominence first began forming on March 14, before exploding in a cloud of magnetized gas on March 18, hurling plasma into space as it went, according to SpaceWeather.
“This 14-Earths-tall swirling column of plasma was raining moon-sized gobs of incandescent material on the sun,” astrophotographer Andrew McCarthy tweeted on Saturday. McCarthy wrote that he spent three hours with his solar telescope pointed at the sun, and he captured a jaw-dropping video of what the tornado looked like.
The event made for a stunning spectacle, but it won’t harm us on Earth.
“What we are seeing here is quite large scale,” Sven Wedemeyer, a professor of solar physics from the University of Oslo who has studied this phenomenon, told Insider.
It’s the latest in a series of mind-boggling, but mostly harmless, events on the sun, as our star ramps up to the peak of its 11-year solar cycle.
The tornado itself is only the visible part of the eruption
The magnetic structure that caused this tornado is actually a lot bigger than what we’re seeing.
“What we’re seeing here is polar crown filament (PCF). A filament is a huge, twisted magnetic stricture that sits above the sun’s surface, sometimes for months,” Mathew Owens, a professor of space physics at the University of Reading, told Insider in an email.
The sun is a big ball of boiling gas and plasma, comprised of hot charged particles. As these move around the sun, they create magnetic fields that erupt through the solar surface.
Some of these magnetic fields are huge, and stretch out toward space in an arc, anchored to the surface by several points. These points are called filaments or prominences, like the one shown below.
In addition to prominences and filaments, solar tornados are another example of points that anchor this invisible magnetic field to the sun, Wedemeyer said.
Eventually, the filaments “decay away or erupt into space,” Owens said.
In this tornado’s case, as the filament broke apart, charged particles were blasted away from the sun, hurling at breakneck speeds through space. If it were headed toward Earth, we might see more auroras or disruptions to power grids. But there’s no risk of that here since our planet was not in the eruption’s path.
“After eruption, this one headed off over the north pole of the sun, so definitely not coming towards us or any of the other planets,” Owens said.
Unlike our own tornadoes, solar tornadoes may not actually spin
Though the name “tornado” suggests the structure spins, this might be a misnomer, Wedemeyer said.
“You basically have two possibilities. Either you have some structure that’s held together by magnetic fields that’s actually truly rotating, or what you’re seeing is plasma — hot gas — that’s following some pre-twisted magnetic field and gives the appearance to be rotating, but is just moving up and down like a slight spiral,” said Wedemeyer.
“One theory is if there’s true rotation in there, this may trigger or destabilize the whole structure, which may contribute to this eruption,” said Wedemeyer.
The sun is getting more active
We’re likely to see more striking solar phenomena in coming years as the sun is reaching a solar maximum, a peak of activity that happens every 11 years or so.
Alongside these beautiful structures, we’re also seeing more sunspots appear. A huge sunspot, seen above, recently appeared on the surface of the sun.
This could send solar winds our way in the coming days, bringing beautiful Northern Lights.