butterfly shaped cme

Bizarre butterfly-shaped solar flare emerges from the sun

Daily News

butterfly shaped cme

A massive cloud of solar plasma was just ejected from the sun like a huge butterfly, unfurling its wings of solar matter either side of our star.

CMEs, or coronal mass ejections, are usually rounder in shape, similar to a ring of smoke. However, this CME, which was released from the far side of the sun, exploded out in a wing-like pattern.

While this particular insect-shaped CME will not collide with the Earth due to the direction it was spat out of the sun, it will instead hit Mercury on March 10, spaceweather.com states.

butterfly-shaped CME Solar and Heliospheric Observatory (SOHO) images of the butterfly-shaped wings of the CME emerging from the sun on March 9. This CME will not hit Earth, but may collide with Mercury. NASA / Solar and Heliospheric Observatory

CMEs are caused by the sun’s twisted magnetic fields suddenly realigning, spewing out vast amounts of solar material and some magnetic field into space. These huge clouds of plasma can move at more than 1 million miles per hour, and if directed towards the Earth, can reach us in only three days.

When a CME hits the Earth’s atmosphere, the plasma and magnetic field of the CME interact with the Earth’s ionosphere, creating a number of strange effects. The extent of these impacts depends on the direction of the CME magnetic field, and how fast it was moving through space.

“The reason CMEs can cause very different impacts on Earth’s near-space environment is simply because they can be very different,” Brett Carter, an associate professor in space science at RMIT University in Australia, told Newsweek. “Some are really fast (sometimes reaching Earth within 1 day); others are slow (taking up to 3 days or so); some have ‘sharper’ shocks preceding them in the solar wind; but most importantly, the magnetic field that they carry within them has a major influence on how ‘geo-effective’ they are.”

“If the IMF (interplanetary magnetic field) has the same orientation as Earth’s magnetic field, then the impact of the CME is less compared to if its orientation is opposite to the Earth’s,” Carter said.

CMEs react with the charged ions in our atmosphere, creating the spectacular light show usually seen over the Artic and Antarctic known as the Northern and Southern Lights, or the aurorae. The aurorae were seen much closer to the equator than usual at the end of February due to a powerful G3 geomagnetic storm, caused by CMEs colliding with the Earth.

The different colors of the lights are due to the CME plasma interacting with different atoms in the atmosphere.

“The color of the northern light is closely related to the material the charged particle from the CME interacts with. Typically these are the Oxygen and Nitrogen in our atmosphere,” Daniel Brown, an associate professor in astronomy and science communication at Nottingham Trent University in the U.K., told Newsweek.

The deep blue or purple colors are the brightest and lowest ones caused by nitrogen molecules at approximately 80 kilometers (50 miles) that are interacting with the solar plasma. The greens between approximately 250 and 100 kilometres (155 and 60 miles) are caused by molecular oxygen. The red above 250 kilometers is caused by monoatomic oxygen, he said.

These lights in particular were unusually red when seen from further away from the poles.

“Looking at that roughly speaking, if you are further south you tend to see only the top bit of the northern lights which is closer to the red colors,” Brown said.

CMEs, as well as solar flares, can also lead to temporary radio blackouts due to their interaction with the atmosphere.

However, this most recent butterfly-shaped CME will not cause these effects—at least not on Earth.

If the CME does collide with Mercury and overwhelms its magnetic field, NASA predicts that it could strip away the planet’s surface slightly, giving Mercury a comet-like tail as it soars around the sun, spaceweather.com reports.

Do you have a tip on a science story that Newsweek should be covering? Do you have a question about CMEs? Let us know via [email protected]


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