NASA Images Capture Solar Eruptions Streaking Away at 2.2 Million MPH

100805-fast-solar-eruption-hmed-745a.grid-6x2 Two NASA spacecraft have tracked one of the fastest big solar eruptions in years has been observed flaring out from the sun at more than 2.2 million mph on Aug. 1 and created a massive sun eruption called a coronal mass ejection that struck Earth's magnetic field Tuesday, creating dazzling aurora displays. NASA's twin STEREO spacecraft recorded the eruption and beamed images of the sun storm back to Earth.

The material ejected from the sun was seen speeding toward Earth at more than 1,000 kilometers per second, or just over 2.2 million mph. Another wave from the event was expected to hit Earth's magnetic field on Wednesday. NASA's two STEREO spacecraft, which monitor the sun's weather in 3-D, also recorded a video of the sun eruption.

"These kinds of eruptions are one of the first signs that the sun is waking up and heading toward another solar maximum expected in the 2013 time frame," NASA officials said in a statement. The sun goes through a regular 11-year activity cycle. The last solar maximum occurred in 2001 and its recent extreme solar minimum was particularly weak and long-lasting, the space agency added.

Coronal mass ejections are eruptions of charged particles from the sun that stream out over several hours. They can contain several billion tons of plasma and expand away from the sun at speeds of up to 1 million mph. At such speeds, they can cross the 93 million-mile gulf between the Earth and sun in two to four days.

Scientists do not know how big solar flares can get because we have only been tracking them since the beginning of the Space Age. A typical solar flare releases the energy equivalent to a billion hydrogen bombs and spew into space a hundred billion tons or so of deadly high-energy particles. Our magnetosphere and atmosphere block them like a giant sunscreen or divert them safely toward the poles where they produce our auroras.

The Hinode Solar Optical Telescope observations are now shedding light on activities that accelerate solar particles in flares. Hinode is a Japanese led international mission in co-operation with NASA, the European Space Agency, and the Norwegian Space Center.

Louise Harra at the Mullard Space Science Laboratory, University College London, explained, “We knew that solar flares can impact a vast area on the Sun, sometimes leaving behind mysterious ‘dark patches’. Using Hinode, for the first time we have been able to train a speed camera on the material in these dark areas – which can be twenty times the diameter of the Earth."

"We have witnessed material flowing from the dark patch in the wake of the flare, feeding the particle flow that can be hazardous for anything in its path as it hurtles through space at 2000 times the speed of a fighter plane.”

The material ejected from the sun during the Aug. 1 flare is not expected to cause any disturbances on Earth other than creating spectacular auroras. Auroras are created when charged particles are caught by Earth's magnetic field and interact with the atmosphere above the poles. The coronal mass ejection it set off created a strong so-called geomagnetic storm that lasted nearly 12 hours enough time for auroras to spread from Europe to North America, NASA officials said in a statement.

Jason McManus via NASA

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