The words “solar eruption” don’t conjure up the best of images on our minds. Having the Sun intact is vital to our continuing existence as a species. The last thing we want our native star to do is erupt, explode, or do anything else apart from continuing to do exactly what it’s doing. That’s why we were initially worried when we heard that NASA had spotted a never-before-seen eruption on the surface of the Sun this past week. Far from being troubled by it, though, they consider it a fascinating opportunity to learn some of the Sun’s secrets. In fact, some of their top scientists have compared the incident to the discovery of the Rosetta Stone.
As disturbing as this might be for many of you to hear, explosions and eruptions happen on the surface of the Sun all the time. There are three primary types of solar eruption. NASA classifies them as partial eruptions, jets, or coronal mass ejections. What made last week’s solar emission so unusual is that it displayed characteristics of all three simultaneously. NASA doesn’t know whether this is a fourth, totally new type of eruption or whether it’s a once-in-a-lifetime event that’s come around by mere coincidence. It will take some time to work through all the data they’ve recorded, but they have an excellent source. Fortunately, the scientists had a probe watching the Sun at the precise moment of the anomalous emission.
This incident is a reminder to everyone that there’s still much that we don’t know about the way stars work – not even the one that sustains human life on our planet. We write science fiction films, but we don’t have a full understanding of the science. The Sun is something we all take for granted. It even takes centre stage in online slots games. The game “Starburst” is one of the most popular online slots games in the world, but even the phenomenally complex mathematics that drives that game pales in comparison to calculating the maths and physics behind what happens on the Sun’s surface. Perhaps scientists feel a little like someone playing that online slots game at Rose Slots Canada – looking for that one “jackpot” theory among a thousand near-misses and not-quite-there ideas and results. The comparison to the Rosetta Stone is intriguing, though. The discovery of that stone allowed us to crack the code of Egyptian hieroglyphics. Could this one-off solar event do the same for the mysteries of the Sun?
It’s usually easy for scientists to tell the three types of solar event apart. The first – coronal mass ejections – are effectively gigantic bubbles that swell and then pop, blasting sun particles and solar energy into space. A solar jet is effectively the same thing but far narrower. Partial eruptions don’t quite complete their escape from the Sun. They swell up but then collapse back into themselves and are swallowed back into the star. Until now, NASA has always considered them to be separate events with separate triggers. The fact that traits of all three were exhibited at once in this new event has laid the foundations of a new theory – that all three are different versions of the same thing, with the same trigger.
NASA’s interest in this is down to more than pure scientific curiosity. A large coronal mass ejection event could pose problems for Earth. In the event of a super-massive ejection, it could even be dangerous. Some scientists even think the Sun is overdue for such an event, which is an unpleasant thing to think about. Understanding how and when eruptions occur could help us to build an early warning system. We don’t yet have the technology to stop such an event from causing harm to Earth, but having some warning could at least allow people to make preparations.
Until now, the problems posed by solar events have been relatively minor. It was initially thought that this most recent bout of solar emissions could cause problems for radio and television stations, but that hasn’t happened so far. It has happened in the past, though. A barrage of solar flares in May this year caused minor disruptions to technology and also caused auroras. Further in the future, knowing when a large solar event might happen could be crucial when it comes to planning space missions. All of that is to come, but the research that goes into the technology of the future starts right here with us gaining a better understanding of our local star’s behaviour.
The Sun is a G2V class star – a relative rarity in our corner of the galaxy. It’s currently classed as a “main sequence star,” which means it’s in the most stable period of its incredibly long life. Most scientists agree that it’s roughly four and a half billion years old, but they can’t agree on how much longer it’s likely to keep burning for. Nobody living on Earth now will see it reach its end, though. The most pessimistic estimates say that the Sun has around another three billion years to burn before it runs out of hydrogen. More optimistic estimates put the number at around eight billion. The loss of the Sun will put an end to human life on our planet if there’s still anyone around to see it. When it runs out of hydrogen, it will begin to burn helium instead. That will turn it from a yellow giant to a red giant, swelling up to a size so large that its outer surface will expand beyond the surface of Mars. Earth won’t just be burned – it will be enveloped by the Sun and then vaporised. We can only hope that the humans of that era have already colonised other worlds.
As enormous as the Sun will be when it becomes the red giant, it’s only a baby when compared to the true titans of the universe. Scientists and astronomers discover bigger stars all the time, but right now, the biggest one they’re aware of is UY Scuti. Classified as a “hyper giant,” it has a radius more than 1700 times greater than the Sun. Its status is under threat, though. Right now, scientists are trying to confirm that a star called Stephenson 2-18 is even bigger. It’s suspected to be 2150 times greater than the Sun’s radius, and if it were to swap places with the Sun, its photosphere would engulf not only Earth and Mars but Jupiter and Saturn, too.