Photo by: NASA

NASA

What Happens When the Sun Throws a Tantrum?

Sure, the sun looks all calm up there in the sky. Kids even put little smiley faces on the sun when they draw it. But look closer and you’ll find that our sun has a nasty, violent temper.

August 24, 2021

First off, the surface of the sun is anything but a calm and placid lake of plasma. It’s a raging inferno, with great plumes of super-heated material constantly rising to the surface and slinking back down. This great churn, known as convection, is the exact same process that happens in a boiling pot of water, but instead of water, you have ionized hydrogen; instead of a stovetop you have a nuclear core, and instead of air you have the vacuum of space. And the whole thing has a temperature of 10,000 kelvin.

If that weren’t bad enough, the sun also has a pretty strong magnetic field. Usually the magnetic field looks like the Earth’s, with nice, calm, straight, and parallel magnetic field lines running from one pole to the other.

The bright light in the lower right of the sun shows an X-class solar flare on Oct. 26, 2014, as captured by NASA's SDO. This was the third X-class flare in 48 hours, which erupted from the largest active region seen on the sun in 24 years.

Photo by: NASA/SDO

NASA/SDO

The bright light in the lower right of the sun shows an X-class solar flare on Oct. 26, 2014, as captured by NASA's SDO. This was the third X-class flare in 48 hours, which erupted from the largest active region seen on the sun in 24 years.

And if that were the end of the story, it would be the end of the story.

Two things conspire to mess up the pretty picture of the sun’s magnetic fields. One is that constant up-down churn of the convection (did I mention that the plumes of material rising to the surface are each bigger than the Earth?). The second is the fact that the sun rotates faster around its middle than at its poles.

Imagine taking a bunch of pieces of cooked spaghetti and placing them in nice neat parallel lines. Now give a fork to a toddler. You get the idea.

X-rays stream off the sun in this image showing observations from by NASA's Nuclear Spectroscopic Telescope Array, or NuSTAR, overlaid on a picture taken by NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory (SDO).

Photo by: NASA/JPL-Caltech/GSFC

NASA/JPL-Caltech/GSFC

X-rays stream off the sun in this image showing observations from by NASA's Nuclear Spectroscopic Telescope Array, or NuSTAR, overlaid on a picture taken by NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory (SDO).

The sun constantly tangles up its magnetic field, twisting it into giant bundles of extra-big magnetic strength. These ropes of magnetic energy plunge chaotically into and out of the sun. Where they pierce the surface, they suppress the normal convection cycle, creating a relatively cool region – a sunspot.

And sometimes those magnetic fields get so tangled up that they snap, like a rubber band pulled too tight, releasing a torrent of energy in the process. That energy by itself is enough to power what’s called a solar flare: a flash of bright ultraviolet and X-ray radiation.

An X-class solar flare flashes on the edge of the Sun on March 7, 2012. This image was captured by NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory and shows a type of light that is invisible to human eyes, called extreme ultraviolet light.

Photo by: NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center/SDO

NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center/SDO

An X-class solar flare flashes on the edge of the Sun on March 7, 2012. This image was captured by NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory and shows a type of light that is invisible to human eyes, called extreme ultraviolet light.

Sometimes, those snapping magnetic field lines also dredge up plasma from the surface of the sun and send it flying into space, an event known as a coronal mass ejection.

Dive Deeper into the Cosmos

Journey Through the Cosmos in an All-New Season of How the Universe Works

The new season premieres March 24 on Science Channel and streams on discovery+.

Paul M. Sutter

Paul M. Sutter is an astrophysicist at Stony Brook University and the Flatiron Institute, host of Ask a Spaceman and Space Radio, and author of How to Die in Space.

Next Up

This Little Star Made a Blast Bigger Than Our Sun Ever Could

Small stars can pack a surprisingly powerful punch. For an example look no further than the nearest neighbor to our solar system, Proxima Centauri. This little red dwarf just sent off a blast a hundred times more powerful than anything that our own sun ever has.

Behold, the Sun as You’ve Never Seen It Before

The European Space Agency’s Solar Orbiter reached the halfway point between the Earth and the Sun to snap an amazing super-high-res picture. You can zoom in on the image to reveal the stunning details of the Sun’s surface. It’s like a Google Earth…but for the Sun.

How Do We Know How Old the Sun Is?

Scientists estimate that our Sun is about 4.57 billion years old. They’re surprisingly confident about that number, too, which opens up an immediate question: how do we know that? The short answer is “a lot of science and math”, but I have a feeling you’re not here for the short answer.

It’s Not You, It’s Me: How a Planet Left Our Solar System

Sometimes you just know. Something clicks, you have a realization that this relationship isn’t right, and it’s simply time to go. It can happen to anyone, at any time, even to planets, and even billions of years ago.

When Did the First Stars Shine?

Our universe is home to up to two trillion galaxies, with each galaxy hosting hundreds of billions of stars. That’s…a lot of stars. Each one a ball of fearsome energies, powered by the nuclear fusion of fundamental elements in their hearts. Each one pouring out light into the empty cosmos, illuminating our universe for our wonder and delight.

Going for Gold: The Biggest Explosion in the Universe

Meet the humble Ophiuchus galaxy cluster. It’s just another dense clump of galaxies, one of approximately a bajillion, dotting the universe. It sits about 240 million lightyears away from Earth.And its heart is missing.

28 Billion Light-Years Away: The Most Distant Star Ever Discovered

On Wednesday, NASA announced the Hubble telescope broke a new record– detecting the most distant star ever seen.

Not all Omicrons are Scary

Whether it’s less severe than other variants or not, we can all agree that the Omicron variant of the coronavirus is no fun at all. But despite its ominous name, “omicron” is just the 15th letter of the Greek alphabet. In astronomy, the stars in any constellation are ordered from brightest to dimmest, with the brightest getting the name “alpha”, the second brightest “beta”, and so on. And believe it or not, there are some pretty cool omicrons out there.

Astronomers May Have Found a Rare “Free-Floating” Black Hole

How do you see a perfectly black object in the middle of a pitch-dark night? It sounds like the start of an annoying riddle, but it’s really the question faced by astronomers when they want to search for black holes.

James Webb Space Telescope Successfully Reached Its Final Destination

Nearly a month after the James Webb Space Telescope launched from French Guiana on December 25, the telescope has reached its final destination–almost a million miles from Earth.

Related To: