A dark solar filament above the sun's surface became unstable and erupted, and NASA captured images and video of the resulting cascading magnetic arches.
A dark solar filament above the sun's surface became unstable and erupted, and NASA captured images and video of the resulting cascading magnetic arches.
Photo from NASA

NASA Video Shows Cascading Magnetic Arches on the Sun

From this earthbound angle, it's easy to start thinking of the sun as nothing more than a yellow ball of butter, but of course a closer look proves that it's nothing of the kind. 

NASA just released incredible video captured by the federal space agency's Solar Dynamics Observatory back in December that shows a cascading series of solar filaments curving around the sun's magnetic field. 

Solar filaments are dark lines or curves that sometimes appear in pictures of the sun, but they're actually huge arcs of plasma, according to NASA.The loops are the sun's magnetic field lines when filled with plasma. A powerful electric current runs along these lines in the plasma, and solar flares occur whenever any of these loops reconnect, according to the Christian Science Monitor.

In the video, a dark solar filament, above the sun's surface, becomes unstable and caves in. The collapse triggers a stream of huge solar plasma arches. Then the solar plasma arches bend across the sun's magnetic field, writhing and contorting as they fall and turning into solar flares as they connect.

The video, captured around December 16, shows the solar material glowing as it emits light in extreme ultraviolet wavelengths. Normally we wouldn't be able to see this, but the images have been colorized in bronze so the human eye can, you know, actually see this stuff.

These particular magnetic arches folded benignly back into the sun, but that's not how it always goes, as the Smithsonian points out. Sometimes these explosions are powerful enough to spew solar material out into space.

In 1859 the famed Carrington Event happened after the sun ejected solar material that headed directly for Earth, traveling 93 million miles in a little more than 17 hours. The flare caused colorful auroras to appear around the world, and the ones that appeared over the Rocky Mountains were so bright that gold miners reportedly woke up and started making breakfast because they thought it was morning, according to Scientific American. Even more interestingly, telegraph operators reported that they got shocked by their telegraph machines, and some said that the electrical surge caused the telegraph paper to catch fire. 

We haven't been hit by another solar storm of that level since then — though there was one in 2012 that narrowly missed us — but considering how the Carrington Event messed with telegraph machines back in the 1800s, it's incredible to think of the mess that such a storm could cause to us now. However, NASA has been working on plans to protect our electrical gear if and when the next big solar storm finally hits us, so hopefully the agency will have that all figured out by then.

In the meantime, it's something else just to get a glimpse of what the sun is really like. It hangs there in the sky, seeming benign as can be, but when you get the chance to really look closer, it's a burning, roiling sphere of a star that consumes more than 600 million tons of hydrogen per second while solar filaments collapse and solar flares arch along the sun's surface. Someday, about five billion years from now, the sun will swell up, gobbling everything near it — including the Earth, potentially — before it settles into old age as a white dwarf.

But that's a long way off, so in the meantime we're just going to enjoy the fact that these NASA-captured solar flares are gorgeous. 

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