A 'Dead' Sunspot Just Exploded, Launching a Plasma Ball Toward Earth - Beyond The World
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A ‘Dead’ Sunspot Just Exploded, Launching a Plasma Ball Toward Earth

The “corpse” of a sunspot ruptured on Monday (April 11), causing a massive ejection of solar material toward Earth.

According to SpaceWeather.com, the explosion is caused by a dead sunspot known as AR2987. The sunspot explosion released a large amount of energy in the form of radiation, as well as a coronal mass ejection (CME) — explosive balls of solar material – both of which could cause more intense northern lights in Earth’s upper atmosphere. According to SpaceWeather, the material in that CME is expected to reach Earth on April 14.

Sunspots are dark areas on the Sun’s surface. According to the Space Weather Prediction Center, they are created by high magnetic flux from the Sun’s interior. These spots are only temporary and can remain anywhere from a few hours to several months.

According to Philip Judge, a solar physicist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research’s High Altitude Observatory, the concept of a “dead” sunspot is more poetic than scientific, but the Sun’s convection breaks these spots apart, leaving magnetically-disturbed bits of quiet solar surface in their wake.

“Occasionally,” Judge wrote in an email to Live Science, “sunspots can’restart,’ with more magnetism appearing later (days, weeks) at the same region, as if a weakness in the convection zone was made, or as if there is an unstable region beneath the surface that is particularly good at generating magnetic fields beneath.”

Whatever the future of AR2987, the sunspot let out a C-class solar flare at 5:21 Universal Time Monday (April 11).  Such flares occur when the plasma and magnetic fields above the sunspot give way under stress; they accelerate outward because they would run into dense material if they went downward toward the Sun’s center, according to Judge.

C-class flares are fairly common, but they rarely have direct impacts on Earth. Solar flares, like today’s, can sometimes cause coronal mass ejections, which are massive eruptions of plasma and magnetic fields from the Sun that move outward into space at millions of miles per hour. According to SpaceWeatherLive, C-class solar flares rarely trigger CMEs, and when they occur, the CMEs are typically slow and weak.

When CMEs interact with the Earth’s magnetic field, the charged particles within the ejection can travel down magnetic field lines emanating from the North and South Poles and interact with the gases in the atmosphere, releasing energy in the form of photons and creating the aurora – the northern and southern lights.

During times when the Sun’s surface is quiet, a stream of particles known as the solar wind is enough to cause the aurora in the polar regions. Because of the increased disturbance to the planet’s magnetic field caused by a massive CME, the aurora may emerge over a considerably wider region.

A so-called cannibal CME raced toward Earth at the end of March, causing auroras in Canada, the northern United States, and New Zealand, according to Space.com.

According to SpaceWeather, the CME released on Monday could produce a mild (G1) geomagnetic storm on April 14, resulting in minor affects on satellite operations and weak oscillations in the electricity system. The aurora could appear at lower latitudes than usual, as far south as northern Michigan and Maine.

According to the Solar Influences Data Analysis Center, which is part of the Royal Observatory of Belgium, all of this activity is rather normal for the Sun. It’s a busy moment for our nearest star, which goes through periods of quiet and activity known as solar cycles.

The Sun is currently in Solar Cycle 25, the 25th since formal observations began in 1755. The number of sunspots during this cycle is on the upswing and is expected to peak in 2025, which means more opportunities for solar storms – and auroras.

Strong geomagnetic storms were also observed on Sunday (April 10). But according to the Solar Influences Data Analysis Center, there have been no other Earth-directed CMEs observed in the past 24 hours other than the one spit out by AR2987’s remnants.

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