Huge Coronal Mass Ejection Seen Spraying Plasma 1 Million Miles From Sun

An astrophotographer has captured an enormous explosion of plasma from the surface of the sun over the course of several hours.

Andrew McCarthy, a photographer who goes by the handle @cosmic_background on Instagram, shared the composite image of the million-mile-long ejection on social media, with the Reddit post going viral.

CME big
Andrew McCarthy's picture of a million-mile-long solar ejection. The picture was taken over the course of six hours. Andrew McCarthy / @cosmic_background

"Today the sun produced the largest coronal mass ejection I've ever witnessed," McCarthy wrote in the caption of the Reddit post. "Here's my composite shot of it, created by capturing hundreds of thousands of images over several hours using a specially modified telescope."

Coronal mass ejections, or CMEs, are huge clouds of plasma spat out by the sun at active areas of the surface where the magnetic fields are especially strong, often sun spots.

As twisted magnetic-field lines on the sun's surface suddenly reconfigure themselves, plumes of plasma are flung out into space.

CMEs can carry billions of tons of coronal plasma, and can travel up to 6.7 million mph. If they are aimed at the Earth, they can cause significant geomagnetic storms, depending on the strength of the CME.

McCarthy captured this enormous CME by taking many pictures over the course of multiple hours, then editing them together.

"I tracked it nearly a million miles out into space," McCarthy wrote in a comment under the Reddit post.

One commenter even edited an image of the Earth into McCarthy's picture to show how big the CME was in comparison to our planet's scale.

McCarthy captured this CME using a specialized telescope that allowed him to pick up wavelengths of light not visible to the human eye, namely hydrogen alpha wavelengths emitted by hydrogen atoms in the sun.

"This is false color, as the hydrogen alpha light is a pinkish red," McCarthy wrote in a comment under the Reddit post. "These are captured through such a narrow bandpass the image is essentially monochrome, so the color depth is added artificially as a means to enhance the details and aesthetics.

"To your eyes the sun is pure white with no details visible.... I'm more interested in capturing what the eyes can't see!"

However, he warns that using a telescope to look at the sun can be very dangerous without proper know-how.

"DO NOT point a telescope at the sun. You'll fry your camera or worse, your eyes. My telescope was specially modified with multiple filters for this."

When CMEs hit the Earth's magnetic field, they interact with both the electromagnetic and physical properties of the atmosphere in events known as geomagnetic storms, which may result in power-grid fluctuations, interruptions to satellite operations, and changes to the behavior of migratory animals.

As the electrons in the solar plasma collide with oxygen and nitrogen atoms in the Earth's atmosphere, they react to produce the spectacular displays of light known as the Northern and Southern Lights.

Solar activity has been increasing steadily since our last solar minimum in 2019. Our sun's activity follows approximately 11-year cycles, during the middle of which the sun reaches its solar maximum, when it experiences increased solar flares and CMEs.

Our current solar cycle is ahead of schedule, with the sun being more active now than it normally is at this stage.