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The Sciences

Ten Years in the Life of the Sun, Up Close and Personal

A decade of the sun turning on its axis condensed down to a mesmerizing 61-minute time-lapse video, along with other stunning views showing flares, explosions and eruptions.

ImaGeo iconImaGeoBy Tom YulsmanJune 25, 2020 8:45 PM
Canyon of Fire on the Sun
A 200,000-mile-long filament of solar material erupted on the sun in late September 2013, ripping through the sun’s atmosphere and leaving behind what looks like a canyon of fire, as seen here in an image captured by NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory spacecraft. (Credit: NASA)

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If you’re feeling like you could use something new and different to watch to take your mind off the state of the world, consider the sun.

NASA has released a video, embedded below, that shows it in a way you probably have never seen, and maybe never have even imagined.

The video shows an entire decade of activity on the sun in the span of a single episode of, well, name your favorite television series. If you’re anything like me (a proud science visualization geek), and probably even if you’re not, you might find it mesmerizing. (The music helps!)

The video is a time-lapse consisting of one high-resolution photo taken every hour of every day by the Solar Dynamics Observatory between June 2, 2010, and June 1 of this year. It condenses those 10 years into just 61 minutes.

A number of particularly noteworthy solar events that are part of the sun’s 11-year solar cycle are captured in the video, including eruptions, flares, explosions, prominences, et cetera. These features tend to go by quickly and are easy to miss. So I’ve also included visualizations that capture some of these spectacular events in great detail, along with short explanations.

Without Further Ado, the Time-Lapse

The images comprising the time-lapse were taken at an extreme ultraviolet wavelength invisible to our eyes. This enables us to see details in the sun’s outermost atmospheric layer, the corona.

Those details include what may be the most memorable event during the 10-year period: a gargantuan filament of solar material erupting into space on Aug. 31, 2012. It’s in the time-lapse at 13:50. It goes by really fast, so here’s a stunning closeup video view:

The details: Toward the end of August 2012, a hot, electrically charged gas known as plasma was flowing along magnetic field structures, forming a long filament that hovered in the sun’s atmosphere. As they often do, these magnetic structures became increasingly coiled up, like a rubber band that has been twisted.

At a certain point, they became so stressed in this configuration that they suddenly snapped and realigned into a less tense one, explosively ejecting radiation and billions of tons of hot plasma along with embedded magnetic fields out into space. (The scientific name for the process is called magnetic reconnection.)

Here’s a still image of the event, known as a coronal mass ejection, or CME — and note the image of Earth inserted to provide scale:

Coronal Mass Ejection
The coronal mass ejection of Aug. 31, 2012, seen as it was exploding outward into space. An image of the Earth has been inserted to provide scale. (Credit: NASA)

Traveling at more than 900 miles per second, the CME dealt a glancing blow to Earth’s magnetosphere a few days later. This acts as a kind of protective magnetic bubble shielding us from harm. But the jostling given to the magnetosphere ultimately resulted in auroras erupting on the night of Sept. 3.

Canyon of Fire

Another filament eruption is captured in NASA’s 61-minute time-lapse. This one, occurring in late September 2013, left behind what NASA called a “canyon of fire.” The image at the top of this post shows that feature. In the time-lapse, it occurs at 20:25; but, once again, it’s fleeting. If you blink, you’ll miss it. So here is a video with varying closeup views of the event:

“The browner images at the beginning of the movie show material at temperatures of 1,800,000 degrees Fahrenheit, and it is here where the canyon of fire imagery is most obvious,” according to NASA. This glowing feature shows where magnetic field structures held the filament aloft before it exploded into space.

The red images in the movie highlight plasma at temperatures of 90,000 F. These are good for observing filaments as they form and erupt.

And the yellow images reveal material at temperatures of 1 million F. These are “useful for observing material coursing along the sun’s magnetic field lines, seen in the movie as an arcade of loops across the area of the eruption,” NASA says.

Fiery Coronal Rain

Some eruptive events on the sun produce only a solar flare. With many others, the flare is associated with a coronal mass ejection. And sometimes, beautifully complex looping structures form. In this closeup video of an event on July 19, 2012, all three are visible:

The event, which occurs at 13:06 in the time-lapse, began with a moderately powerful solar flare exploding outward from the sun’s lower-right limb. A CME was next. “And then, the sun treated viewers to one of its dazzling magnetic displays — a phenomenon known as coronal rain,” NASA says.

After the flare and CME, hot plasma cooled and condensed along strong magnetic fields, creating the beautiful loops visible in the closeup video.

Transit of Venus

One event early on in the time-lapse is easier to see than others: The transit of Venus across the face of the sun on June 5, 2012. You can spot it at 12:24. It goes by quick, so once again, here’s a closeup video:

NASA describes this as “the rarest predictable solar event.” This one lasted about six hours. Another one won’t occur until 2117. So you might want to watch the video a few times!

Over the decade covered by the time-lapse video, SDO collected 425 million high-resolution images of the sun comprising 20 million gigabytes of data. “This information has enabled countless new discoveries about the workings of our closest star and how it influences the solar system,” NASA says.

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