Skip the chocolates and celebrate the special nerd in your life with heart-shaped plasma instead. Just in time for Valentine’s Day, the Sun released this lovely eruption on February 5th, 2014. The event was captured by the Solar Dynamics Observatory (SDO); be sure to check out the video embedded above to see it unfold (mobile users click here).
The heart was formed by an erupting “filament” or “prominence”. Filaments and prominences are the same things, really. The two words just describe how the structure is oriented from our perspective: filament for when it’s on the face of the Sun and prominence for when it’s poking off the side. Scientists use these terms pretty much interchangeably now, but it wasn’t initially obvious that they were the same when the words were coined.
Whatever you call them, these structures are long, thin channels of relatively cool plasma suspended high into the Sun’s outer atmosphere, the corona, where temperatures are typically much higher. In the image above, we’re seeing material at around 50,000 degrees celsius. When the eruption plays for the third and fourth times in the video, we move higher in the atmosphere and see material at hotter temperatures (630,000 and 1,250,000 degrees, respectively). The filament appears dark in those sections because it’s not hot enough to emit light at those wavelengths, and it also absorbs any high-energy light coming from behind.
As it erupts, the prominence material is likely heated, allowing it to show up to the extent that it does in the images below. Filaments are supported by the Sun’s magnetic field and can persist for many days before erupting or collapsing when the magnetic field configuration becomes unstable. How exactly this happens is still a mystery, but we can say one thing with certainty: this one loves you very much. Happy Valentine’s Day!