A coronal mass ejection (CME) erupted from the surface of the sun on 9 May, in a massive eruption of solar material.
The Interface Region Imaging Spectrograph (IRIS), NASA's newest satellite to study our solar neighbor, witnessed the blast in all its glory. The sheet of blazing gas rose from the surface of the sun at 1.5 million miles per hour. The IRIS spacecraft recorded the eruption in greater detail than ever before.
IRIS was launched in June 2013, on a mission to study lower levels of the sun in greater detail than ever before seen.
Coronal mass ejections are formed when magnetic fields, generated by churning plasma in the sun, rise from the solar surface, twist and break. This causes vast quantities of solar plasma to race out into space.
Mission planners need around 24 hours to align IRIS to view activities on the solar surface. This means astronomers need careful data collection, and a little bit of luck, to witness coronal mass ejections.
"We focus in on active regions to try to see a flare or a CME. And then we wait and hope that we'll catch something," Bart De Pontieu, IRIS science head at Lockheed Martin Solar & Astrophysics Laboratory in California, said.
IRIS centers studies on areas at the base, or footprint, of these ejections. Gas in these regions glows at 53,500 degrees Fahrenheit.
NASA created a video of the CME, as seen by the IRIS spacecraft.
"The giant sheet of solar material erupting was the first CME seen by NASA's Interface Region Imaging Spectrograph, or IRIS.
The field of view seen here is about five Earth's wide and about seven and a half Earth's tall," mission managers for IRIS wrote in the video description.
In the video, images recorded by IRIS were compared to observations of the same CME, recorded by the Solar Dynamics Observatory (SDO), launched in 2010. The upgrade in detail between the two observatories is dramatic.
This CME was not aimed toward Earth, although our home world is occasionally affected by these solar outbursts. Magnetic fields around the Earth deflect charged particles from the CME toward the poles. Interactions with gases in the atmosphere can create northern and southern lights.
Although the magnetic field around the Earth protects us from potential damage, this field can shake when hit by a powerful CME. This moving magnetic field creates an electrical field, which can damage satellites, and could even trigger blackouts or radio disruptions on the ground.
On 1 September 1859, solar astronomer Richard Carrington was observing the sun when he saw a pair of white-hot spots rise on the sun. The following day, skies as far south as Hawaii erupted in streaks of red, green and purple. Telegraphs went haywire, setting paper on fire and operating even when disconnected from their batteries.