NASA space telescope records solar blast

I took a break from the newsdesk at Skymania Towers yesterday to photograph the giant sunspot that had sparked spectacular aurorae just a few days ago.

The coronal mass ejection observed by the SOHO satellite's LASCO C2 camera. Credit: NASA/ESA
The coronal mass ejection observed by the SOHO satellite’s LASCO C2 camera. Credit: NASA/ESA

I obtained a reasonable image with my Canon EOS 600D, using an ETX-90 telescope as its “lens”, protected by a vital glass solar filter.

By this time, the sunspot – actually a complex area labelled AR1520-1521 and many times larger than the Earth – was smaller than it had been last week and was nearing the solar limb as seen from our viewpoint.

Little did I realise as I examined my photo that the same spot group was about to unleash an enormous explosion that would be spectacularly seen from space.

The M1-class flare was recorded by a variety of cameras aboard the Solar and Heliospheric Observatory, SOHO, operated jointly by NASA and the European Space Agency.

It was accompanied by a huge eruption called a coronal mass ejection (CME) as illustrated above by SOHO’s LASCO-3 camera as it monitored the Sun’s atmosphere, or corona. The Sun itself is masked to avoid blinding this camera, but its position is indicated by the white circle which looks tiny against the growing CME.

The sunspot imaged earlier yesterday. Credit: Paul Sutherland"
The sunspot imaged earlier yesterday. Credit: Paul Sutherland”

Leading solar scientist Dr Lucie Green, of the Mullard Space Science Laboratory in Surrey, told Skymania: “These eruptions occur when immense magnetic structures in the solar atmosphere lose their stability and can no longer be held down by the sun’s huge gravitational pull. Just like a coiled spring suddenly being released, they erupt into space.”

NASA’s Spaceweather.com website has produced an animation of the eruption which you can see here. According to experts at NASA’s Goddard Space Weather Laboratory, the CME will hit Venus tomorrow, July 19th, and could deliver a glancing blow to Earth on July 20th. So higher latitudes might see more aurorae.

Sunspot AR1520 had previously fired an X1.4-class solar flare on July 12th which caused a CME that buffeted Earth with a bout of space weather a couple of days later.

Paul Sutherland

Paul Sutherland

I have been a professional journalist for nearly 40 years. I write regularly for science magazines including BBC Sky at Night magazine, BBC Focus, Astronomy Now and Popular Astronomy. I have also authored three books on astronomy and contributed to others.
Paul Sutherland

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Paul Sutherland

I have been a professional journalist for nearly 40 years. I write regularly for science magazines including BBC Sky at Night magazine, BBC Focus, Astronomy Now and Popular Astronomy. I have also authored three books on astronomy and contributed to others.

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