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A CME, one type of "solar storm", erupts from the Sun in January 2002. The actual disc of the Sun, indicated by the white circle, is hidden in this view through an instrument called a coronagraph. The coronagraph creates an artificial eclipse by blocking the too-bright light from the Sun's surface, allowing us to view the Sun's dimmer atmosphere.
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Images courtesy SOHO (NASA & ESA). Animation by Windows to the Universe staff (Randy Russell).

Coronal Mass Ejections

"Without warning, the relatively calm solar atmosphere can be torn asunder by sudden outbursts of a scale unknown on Earth. Catastrophic events of incredible energy...stretch up to halfway across the visible solar surface, suddenly and unpredictably open up and expel their contents, defying the Sun's enormous gravity." (Sun, Earth, and Sky by Kenneth R. Lang)

These catastrophic events that the author is speaking about are coronal mass ejections (CME's).

Coronal mass ejections are explosions in the Sun's corona that spew out solar particles. A lot of material is thrown out into the solar wind. Coronal mass ejections can be dangerous when they hit the Earth.

CME's can seriously disrupt the Earth's environment. Intense radiation from the Sun, which arrives only 8 minutes after being released, can alter the Earth's outer atmosphere, disrupting long-distance radio communications. Very energetic particles pushed along by the shock wave of the CME can endanger astronauts or fry satellite electronics. These energetic particles arrive at the Earth (or Moon) about an hour later. The actual coronal mass ejection arrives at the Earth one to four days after the initial eruption, resulting in strong geomagnetic storms, aurorae and electrical power blackouts.

Coronal mass ejections will become more and more frequent as we near solar maximum. CME's, not discovered until the 1970's, are difficult to detect. That is why we need satellites such as the ACE satellite which acts as a spaceweather station while in orbit. ACE can provide a one-hour advance warning of any geomagnetic storms that would affect the Earth.

Last modified March 29, 2010 by Randy Russell.

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Windows to the Universe, a project of the National Earth Science Teachers Association, is sponsored in part by the National Science Foundation and NASA, our Founding Partners (the American Geophysical Union and American Geosciences Institute) as well as through Institutional, Contributing, and Affiliate Partners, individual memberships and generous donors. Thank you for your support! NASA AGU AGI NSF