Feb 24, 2013

An Astronomer's Paean to a Solar Flare

Crossposted from Reflections Journal.

In what some might call "sun worship," astronomer Phil Plait waxes rhapsodic on how the sun giveth and the sun taketh away.

That barely constrained violence can be difficult to square with the grace and elegance of the motion. The Sun can damage our civilization, yet we also depend on it for our existence. But there you go: The Universe is full of such dichotomies.

It is harsh, inhospitable, destructive, and capable of crushing indifference.

It is pleasing, habitable, serene, and capable of life-altering beauty.

I wouldn’t have it any other way.

The video is a time-lapse movie of a solar flare raining in beautiful arcs onto the sun's surface. It is hard not to appreciate the beauty of the thing as we offer thanks to Sol Invictus for not taking out our entire power grid and plunging us back into a pre-technological era.

So what causes the fiery phenomenon? Coronal rain occurs when plasma in the solar atmosphere cools and gets attracted by magnetic field lines on the Sun's surface. As NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center explained in a written statement, "This plasma acts as a tracer, helping scientists watch the dance of magnetic fields on the sun, outlining the fields as it slowly falls back to the solar surface."

. . .

This eruption was special, NASA said, because it combined three out of three possible events: a solar flare, an ejection of solar material (called a coronal mass ejection) and coronal rain.

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