for National Geographic News
Published June 8, 2011
A mushroom of cooled plasma popped like a pimple and rained onto the surface of the sun yesterday—shooting perhaps the largest amount of solar material into space ever seen, scientists say.
(Watch a video of the solar flare.)
The solar flare—an unusually bright spot on the sun—wasn't surprising as a "moderate" event. Space observatories in the past year recorded about 70 such solar flares, each roughly ten times weaker than "extreme" flares, of which only two have occurred since 2007.Instead, what shocked scientists was the unusual amount of material that lofted up, expanded, and fell back down over roughly half the surface area of the sun. The event's simultaneous launch of particles into space is called a coronal mass ejection (CME).
"This totally caught us by surprise. There wasn't much going on with this spot, but as it came from behind the sun, all of the sudden there was a flare and huge ejection of particles," said astrophysicist Phillip Chamberlin of NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory (SDO), one of several spacecraft that recorded the event.
"We've never seen a CME this enormous."