On May 9, NASA’s newest solar observatory, the Interface Region Imaging Spectrograph (IRIS), caught a magnificent eruption of material from the sun called a coronal mass ejection (CME), and now NASA has released a video of the event in unprecedented detail.
IRIS, which launched in June last year, observes how solar material behaves in a poorly understood region in the sun’s low atmosphere, gathering footage with incredible resolution. Scientists hope that this information may help further our knowledge of the dynamics of the sun.
As mentioned, the footage released demonstrates an event called a CME. CMEs are violent, balloon-shaped bursts of solar wind and magnetic fields that release vast amounts of matter into space. They occur when the sun’s strong magnetic fields, which structure the sun’s outer atmosphere (the corona), become so twisted and distorted from turbulence that they snap, spewing out huge bubbles of plasma. A large CME can belch out up to a billion tons of matter at speeds of up to several million mph; usually this matter will drift off harmlessly, but sometimes CMEs can produce magnetic storms that can disrupt electrical systems on Earth. They are also often associated with solar flares, but they can occur independent of these events.
CMEs are common and can occur up to several times a day, however, IRIS can only direct its attention to certain areas of the sun which are decided a day in advance. Catching these events as they occur is therefore usually a matter of luck.
“We focus in on active regions to try to see a flare or a CME,” said Bart De Pontieu, the IRIS science lead at Lockheed Martin Solar & Astrophysics Laboratory in a news-release. “And then we wait and hope that we’ll catch something. This is the first clear CME for IRIS so the team is very excited.”
Check out this video of the CME which shows off solar material shooting out at speeds of 1.5 million mph. The field of view is around 7.5 times the width of the Earth and 5 times as tall.