spaceSpace and Physics

NASA Spots Active Region Of The Sun Peppered With Solar Flares


Robin Andrews

Science & Policy Writer



NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory (SDO) has showcased fresh footage of an active region on the surface of the Sun, packed with plenty of small flares.

These stunning, colorized new images – taken at the extreme end of the ultraviolet light part of the electromagnetic spectrum – focused on a slither of our local star imbued with intense magnetic energy. As you can see, it features dancing, towering magnetic field lines that reach out to distances many times the diameter of our own world. Recorded from May 23 to 25 of this very year, you can see how these field lines are beautifully illuminated by charged particles cascading along them.


Solar flares, or stellar flares as they’re more generally referred to as, are gnarly as heck. In somewhat crude terms, they take place when an accumulation of magnetic energy on or near the surface of a star is unleashed. They eject a bunch of high-energy radiation in the process, and often appear as bright “flashes”.

Our Sun produces flares, clearly, but they’re nothing compared to the might of other stars. Just take Proxima Centauri, one of three stars in the star system nearest our own, just over 4 light-years away. As was recently picked up by the Carnegie Institute for Science, this red dwarf is able to easily fire off flares 10 times more luminous (on the X-ray part of the electromagnetic spectrum) than our Sun’s largest flares.

Look at them go! There's even an Earth for scale in the top left. SDO/NASA

It’s lucky we aren’t orbiting that particular celestial furnace: The closely orbiting, potentially rocky exoplanet, Proxima b, was likely assaulted with this dose of powerful radiation, which makes astrobiologists wonder how likely it is life could evolve or survive there.

Solar flaring isn’t the only thing that the SDO looks out for, by the way. It’s also been taking a peek at the so-called solar tornadoes that occasionally dot our Sun’s surface. These enormous, rotating structures – each hypothetically capable of swallowing up several Earths – have been seen to reach temperatures of up to 2,000,000°C (3,600,000°F), which makes the lava emerging from Kilauea right now seem positively frigid.


A recent analysis, however, puts their very existence in doubt. While something is clearly going on on the surface of the Sun, it seems that these tornadoes aren’t actually twisting. They do move, but just horizontally, along magnetic field lines – and the spinning itself is something of a side-effect of the line of sight we have from the SDO. Instead, they may come to be known as “oscillating pillars” if the researchers of that analysis have a say.

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