An Incredible Display of Solar Violence
When astronomers first began looking at the Sun, one of the first features that caught their eyes were giant, fiery loops shooting into space, but still connected to the Sun’s surface at both ends. They called these phenomena ‘prominences.’
What is a Sun prominence? It took astronomers a hundred years to answer that, but today, thanks to solar probes and large telescopes, we have a good handle on the mechanisms that produce these incredible displays.
The photo below was taken by the SOlar and Heliospheric Observatory (SOHO). The prominence extends into space several thousand miles, almost a hundred thousand km. Some have been observed to reach one million km into space.
Prominences are explosions of plasma shot into space by magnetic disruptions around sunspots. The ends of the prominence will be near two sunspots of opposite polarity. What happens is the magnetic fields interfere with each other. They get twisted and plasma between the two breaks free and rockets into space at velocities as high as 1300 km/sec. The plasma is still bound to the Sun by the fields however, and cannot escape.
Prominences are not short lived. They can last several weeks, even several months.