A team of experts from NASA has recently spotted a colossal sunspot, predicted to expand and shift until it directly faces Earth in the coming week.
The scientists cautioned that this darker, cooler region of the sun might unleash powerful eruptions such as solar flares (intense bursts of high-frequency radiation) and coronal mass ejections (CMEs; vast solar plasma eruptions).
These types of eruptions have the potential to intersect with the Earth and interfere with satellite navigation and even trigger power outages, making sunspot monitoring far more crucial than mere scientific curiosity.
Sunspot captured by NASA’s Perseverance rover
While the exact dimensions of the sunspot remain uncertain, it was NASA’s Perseverance rover that captured its imagery from a staggering distance of over 152 million miles away from the sun. Between August 17 and August 20, the rover documented the sunspot while navigating the Jezero Crater on Mars.
“Because Mars is orbiting over the far side of the sun, Perseverance can see approaching sunspots more than a week before we do. Consider this your one-week warning: a big sunspot is coming,” experts from Spaceweather reported.
These captured images have been converted into an animation, presenting a faint sun against the void of space, with a notable shadowy mass sweeping across its facade. And as scientists stressed, to show up in such low-resolution images, the sunspot must be considerably big.
How do sunspots form?
The formation of sunspots is attributed to the sun’s magnetic field, which is approximately 2,500 times stronger than that of Earth. Due to this intense magnetic field, the magnetism’s pressure heightens, causing the adjacent atmospheric pressure to drop.
Consequently, this reduces the temperature in comparison to its neighboring regions because the dense magnetic field restricts the influx of warm gas from the Sun’s core to its exterior.
Thus, sunspots appear darker, as they are around 4,000 degrees Fahrenheit less warm than the surrounding regions. By contrast, the sun’s external atmosphere can soar beyond a million degrees.
Decoding mysteries of the sun
Back in February, NASA showcased breathtaking images of our mammoth star, delineating its diverse temperature zones. Utilizing the Nuclear Spectroscopic Telescope Array (NuSTAR), the U.S. space agency traced varying X-rays discharged by the hottest substances in the sun’s aura. Areas emitting high-energy X-rays were few, while regions radiating low-energy X-rays and ultraviolet light spanned the entire gaseous orb.
Through these insights, scientists aspire to decode one of the sun’s profound enigmas: the reason behind its external atmosphere being over a million degrees – a temperature at least 100 times hotter than its surface.
More about sun eruptions
Sun eruptions, often referred to as solar flares or coronal mass ejections (CMEs), are massive bursts of energy and matter from the Sun’s surface and its outer atmosphere. Here’s a brief overview:
These are sudden, intense variations in brightness. They are our sun’s version of earthquakes, caused by the interaction of magnetic fields. Solar flares release a lot of energy, including radiations across virtually the entire electromagnetic spectrum, from radio waves to x-rays and gamma rays.
Coronal mass ejections (CMEs)
CMEs are massive bursts of solar wind and magnetic fields rising above the solar corona or being released into space. CMEs often accompany solar flare outbreaks but can occur independently as well. These are huge bubbles of gas threaded with magnetic field lines.
Impacts of sun eruptions
Solar flares and CMEs can produce strong x-rays that can affect Earth’s upper atmosphere and potentially disrupt radio signals. If directed at Earth, the charged particles from a CME can also disturb our planet’s magnetosphere, leading to geomagnetic storms.
Strong geomagnetic storms can interfere with satellite electronics and even reduce their operational lifespans.
High doses of the solar energetic particles from CMEs can pose a threat to astronauts outside of Earth’s protective magnetosphere.
In extreme cases, geomagnetic storms can induce electric currents in power lines, potentially damaging transformers and other components of a power grid.
On a positive note, the interaction of charged particles from the Sun with Earth’s magnetic field and atmosphere leads to the creation of beautiful auroras (Northern and Southern Lights).
Understanding solar flares and CMEs is essential not just for our technological infrastructure but also for future deep space missions, as they can impact the safety of astronauts traveling beyond Earth’s protective magnetic field.