Watch 'Cannibal' CME Explode From Sun's Surface in NASA Footage

NASA has captured the moment a "cannibal" coronal mass ejection (CME) was launched from the surface of the sun on August 15 in incredible footage.

Sunspot region 3078, which currently contains 13 sunspots, released a cloud of hot plasma at 04:30 UT on August 15 so big and fast that it has been dubbed a "cannibal" CME.

The video, captured by NASA's Solar Dynamics Observator, shows the cloud of dark-looking plasma leaving the sun's surface just after a smaller CME.

solar flare
Stock image of the Sun flaring behind Earth. A cannibal coronal mass ejection is heading toward Earth, and is due to arrive later this week. iStock / Getty Images Plus

According to LiveScience, a cannibal CME is when a fast-moving solar ejection overtakes another eruption in the same region of space, combining to form a giant wave of plasma that results in a larger geomagnetic storm once it reaches the Earth.

The first CME that was overtaken by the cannibal occurred at 11:30 UT on August 14.

CMEs are usually launched from sunspots on the sun's surface, which are dark-looking zones where the sun's coronal magnetic fields are particularly strong.

When highly twisted magnetic fields in the sunspots become too stressed, they suddenly realign in a process called magnetic reconnection, which can result in the ejection of electromagnetic energy in the form of a solar flare and a CME: the launching out of a cloud of hot plasma.

CMEs can carry billions of tons of coronal plasma, and can travel up to 6.7 million mph, reaching Earth in a matter of days.

When CMEs reach the Earth's magnetic field, they interact with both the electromagnetic and physical properties of the Earth' atmosphere in events known as geomagnetic storms. As the electrons in the plasma collide with oxygen and nitrogen atoms in the atmosphere, they react to produce the spectacular displays of light known as the Aurora Borealis and Australis, or the Northern and Southern Lights.

Depending on the strength of the geomagnetic storm, there may be electrical disturbances affecting power grids and other infrastructure.

Between August 17 and 19, the cannibal CME is forecast to hit Earth and trigger a mid-level storm.

"Geomagnetic responses are likely to escalate to G3 (Strong) conditions on 18 Aug due to the arrival at or near Earth of multiple coronal mass ejections (CMEs) that have departed the Sun since 14 Aug", wrote U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's (NOAA) Space Weather Prediction Center in a statement on August 16.

"Impacts to our technology from a G3 storm are usually minimal. However, a G3 storm has the potential to drive the aurora further away from its normal polar residence, and if other factors come together, the aurora might be seen over portions of Pennsylvania, Iowa, to northern Oregon."

The region of the sun where the cannibal CME was produced has recently been flaring constantly, and is predicted by NOAA to have a one in 20 chance of X-class flare.

According to SpaceWeather.com, X-class flares are the largest and most powerful type of solar flare, and can trigger planet-wide radio blackouts and long-lasting radiation storms.

X-class flares are rare, however, with medium-powered M-class and low-powered C-class flares being a lot more common. Other sunspot regions currently only have a 1 percent chance of experiencing an X-class flare.

The largest ever X-class flare is thought to have been released during the Carrington Event in 1859, but the most powerful ever recorded by NASA occurred on November 4, 2003.