An unusual new color for a hybrid chrysanthemum? This is actually an outburst of solar magnetic activity, producing long arcs of superheated magnetized plasma, photographed by the Big Bear Solar Observatory. Some of these streams of plasma, called fibrils, are longer than the earth’s diameter. They can reach heights of ten thousand kilometers, lasting for 15 to 20 minutes before fading away.
These long tubes of magnetically confined plasma were visible for a few days, before the sun’s surface changed again, as it does constantly. This photograph was taken in October 2014, in active solar region 2177. When fibrils are seen at the edge of the solar disc, they are called spicules. Seen in a passive region, they’re called mottles.
The original picture taken by the Big Bear Solar Observatory can be seen here. This picture has been averted and colorized by Alan Friedman.
The Big Bear Solar Observatory (BBSO) in the San Bernardino mountains in California houses the largest solar telescope in the world and is operated by the New Jersey Institute of Technology (NJIT). The solar telescopes at the BBSO have been upgraded in 2011 to better observe the current period of heightened solar activity. Magnetic activity on the sun produces “space weather”, which directly affects all of us on earth. According to an NJIT press release, “Scientists believe that magnetic structures like sunspots hold the key to space weather. Such weather, originating in the Sun, can affect Earth’s climate and environment. A bad storm can disrupt power grids and communication, destroy satellites and even expose airline pilots, crew and passengers to radiation.”
Luckily for us, scientists consider the sun to be a boring star. It sustains life on earth without burning us, freezing us, or blowing us up. It is nevertheless still a star and the solar surface is a turmoil of magnetic activity, burning hydrogen rain, flares, explosions and other spectacular and destructive phenomena. BBSO and other solar telescopes help us keep a wary eye on the heart of the solar system. And they give us all those pretty pictures.