Coronal mass ejections (CMEs) are quite possibly the most terrifying storms in the solar system (yes, even more horrifying than Jupiter’s Great Red Spot). Imagine an explosion that sends 100 billion kg (220 billion pounds) of superheated material storming towards you at speeds reaching 1000 km/second (2 million mph). That’s essentially what coronal mass ejections are. These events can release as much energy as one billion hydrogen bombs.
In short, these solar events are amazingly powerful and amazingly destructive. And we had an opportunity to witness one of these events recently, on December 16th and 17th.
The outer atmosphere of the Sun (what is called the “corona”) is kept in check largely by strong magnetic fields. When these fields are closed (disrupted), the confined solar atmosphere that is ordinarily kept well structured may suddenly release bubbles of gas and magnetic fields. these are called coronal mass ejections. As noted above, a large CME can contain a billion tons of matter that can be accelerated to several million miles per hour/kilometers per an hour in a spectacular explosion.
And this is what we saw just several days ago. Researchers witnessed a dark clump of plasma rise up above the Sun, twist, spin about, and break away from the rest of our the sun. The images were taken in a wavelength of extreme ultraviolet light by NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory, and they reveal ionized iron that has been heated to at least a million degrees (not so fun for anyone who happens to be nearby).
Fortunately for us, we are a safe 150 million km (94 million miles) from the searing solar surface and its energetic eruptions. Additionally, the Earth has a built in defense system. Our own magnetic field (our magnetosphere) protects us from the majority of these deadly solar events. In fact, most of us have seen this shield hard at work in the form of aurora borealis (the Northern Lights) and aurora australis (the Southern Lights). But of course, our atmosphere isn’t impenetrable. In 1859 there was a particularly bad solar storm known as “the Carrington Event.” Telegraph operators were electrocuted, wires snapped and caught fire, and auroras occurred around the globe (they were seen in Colorado, the Caribbean etc.).
In the images that were captured by NASA, you can see the effect of these magnetic forces. Click the below video and watch as a massive amount of plasma is pulled about the sun, rippling across the star this way and that over a 12 hour period. Finally, you will see the plasma thrust into space by a coronal mass ejection. Below is just one of the videos others can be found at the NASA site sourced above.