Science Scoops: A Huge Eruption on the Sun!

Last July, a massive eruption occurred on the Sun. The mega-event, captured in graphic detail by the SOHO (Solar and Heliospheric Observatory) satellite, first appeared as a fiery-looking “leg” stretching 30 Earth diameters into space. Over the next 90 minutes, it became apparent that the leg was actually only part of a larger loop of material blasting off the Sun's surface.

Prominences, as these eruptive events are called, are caused by gigantic loops of magnetic fields that emerge from below the Sun's surface. As they rise, they become filled with trapped, superhot gas that is heated to many millions of degrees. Sometimes, as the magnetic fields become twisted and unstable, the magnetic energy collapses and explosively heats vast quantities of gas, which then burst and rise off the Sun in just a few minutes or hours.

If eruptions like these are aimed at Earth, they can trigger the onset of the northern and southern lights (aurora borealis and australis, respectively), or disrupt radio communications. This particular eruption, however, was directed away from Earth.

SOHO has a prime viewing location for these spectacular events, as it sits in space at a gravitational balance point between the Sun and Earth. What's the Sun doing today?

Activity

  1. Which two gases are probably involved in prominences on the Sun?
    [anno: Hydrogen and helium are probably involved in prominences.]
  2. Why might prominences on the Sun affect radio communications?
    [anno: Answers will vary but could include that because magnetic fields are looping out of the Sun, they affect magnetic fields on Earth, and thus radio communications.]
  3. What are some similarities between reactions inside the Sun and reactions inside the Earth? Write a sentence or two to explain some of the similarities.
    [anno: Answers may vary but could include that both the Sun and the Earth have movement of matter occurring beneath their surfaces that affect the surface. For example, prominences on the Sun and volcanoes on the Earth.]