Just when scientists think they’ve figured out the Sun, it does something so out of character that we tremble in equal parts fear and thrill. And the Sun’s recent activity have space weather researchers perplexed.
On February 2, a piece of the sun’s surface broke off and began circling its north pole like a massive polar vortex.
NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory published a video of a large filament of plasma, or electrified gas, blasting out from the Sun before separating and circulating in a’massive polar vortex.’
In the video, the solar prominence is a big luminous feature that spreads outward from the Sun’s surface. Prominences are made up of hydrogen and helium and erupt when a structure becomes unstable and bursts outward, releasing plasma. Experts believe the prominence is related to the reversal of the Sun’s magnetic field, which occurs once every 11 years throughout the solar cycle.
However, there are multiple firsts connected with this episode, as we have never seen the formation of such a vortex before, and the observation of this vortex was only possible thanks to the illustrious James Webb Space Telescope.
Scott McIntosh, a solar physicist and deputy director of the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colorado, told Space.com that while he’s never seen anything like this, he does know that something strange happens once every solar cycle at the Sun’s 55-degree latitude.
He compares the most recent prominence to a hedgerow in the solar plasma that occurs every 11 years in the same area around the Sun’s polar crown.
Still what remains a question is why it only goes towards the pole once before disappearing and reappearing three or four years later in the same place, according to McIntosh.
Observing the phenomenon directly is difficult since the Sun can only be seen from the ecliptic plane, which is the plane in which planets orbit. While McIntosh believes that the polar vortex may have something to do with the reversal of the Sun’s magnetic field, he adds that we would need another mission to completely grasp what’s going on at the Sun.
Meanwhile, the active sunspot AR3213 exploded early on February 10, causing an M3.7-class solar flare and a shock wave in the Sun’s atmosphere, according to spaceweather.com. The chances of an M-class solar outburst recently have increased to 75%. There’s also a 15% risk of X-flares.
NOAA has grouped solar flares into five categories depending on the intensity of the X-rays they emit, with each level being ten times stronger than the previous. The X-class flares are the largest and most intense of the five. They are massive occurrences capable of causing global radio blackouts and long-lasting radiation storms.