Sun unleashes monster eruption
By Richard Stenger
(CNN) -- The sun discharged a powerful burst of energy on Friday, igniting the most complex coronal mass ejection since an international solar observatory launched six years ago, according to astronomers.
The eruption, a twisting assemblage of bright patches that resembles a fantastical dragon, unleashed billions of tons of particles at speeds of about 2.2 million mph (3.5 million km/h).
The sun's magnetic field lines were responsible for the intricate design, according to Paal Brekke, a scientist with the Solar and Heliospheric Observatory (SOHO), a joint project of NASA and the European Space Agency
"The complexity and structure ... amazed even experienced solar physicists at the SOHO operations center," Brekke said. "It shows lots of structures, lots of filaments. They get twisted up like rubber bands and sometimes they can just snap."
With some instruments SOHO must block out the direct solar rays with a protective filter, seen in some pictures as a darkened disk. The white circle depicts the sun.
Packed with charged molecules and magnetic forces, solar storms headed in our direction can smash into the upper atmosphere, producing colorful aurora displays and making electrical systems go haywire on everything from satellites to power grids.
In 1989, one such geomagnetic storm knocked out the main electrical utility in Quebec, Canada, plunging millions into darkness for hours and costing billions of dollars to fix.
Fortunately, humans can breath easy after this particular salvo. "This one went out of the side of the sun and is not heading toward Earth," Brekke said.
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