Enormous Structure on Surface of Sun Appears to Be Coming Apart

A space photographer has shared an image of a huge prominence on the surface of the sun that is speculated to be coming apart.

Solar prominences are large, bright loops of plasma—electrically charged hydrogen and helium gas—that extend outwards from the surface of the sun. They can be truly massive in scale, sometimes tens of times larger than the Earth.

While solar prominences can take just a day to form, they can be stable enough to persist for months, looping hundreds of thousands of miles into space while anchored to the sun's surface.

Solar prominence
A NASA Solar Dynamics Observatory photo shows a solar prominence erupting from the surface of the sun in March, 2010. These prominences can be tens of times larger than Earth. NASA/SDO/AIA/Getty

Scientists aren't quite sure how solar prominences form, but it's thought that they flow along the sun's tangled and twisted magnetic field lines, according to NASA.

On Sunday, astrophotographer Sebastian Voltmer posted a tweet including a photo of what he called a "huge prominence" on the surface of the sun. He added: "That's impressive, but it was spectacular to see a very fast moving part of it through my small refractor telescope—ejecting and detaching to the side."

Space weather news website spaceweather.com said the photo showed the prominence "might be coming apart."

Other solar prominence images taken last week can be found on spaceweather.com's Realtime Image Gallery.

Voltmer also uploaded video footage showing the prominence in action plus an eruption of material from the sun's surface. "This huge eruption is 20 times the size of the Earth," he said in the video.

Solar prominences can sometimes disintegrate or collapse altogether. This happens when the magnetic field in their vicinity become unstable, such as if a new magnetic field line pokes through the sun's surface beneath the prominence, David Hathaway, a solar physicist at the NASA Marshall Space Flight Center, told spaceweather.com.

The collapse of a solar prominence can cause an explosion of material away from the sun which releases what's known as a Hyder flare, named after astrophysicist Charles Hyder who studied these events.

It's important to note that astrophotographers taking images of solar prominences or any other images of the sun are using special filters that enable them to do so safely. Looking at the sun directly and without proper protection can burn the eye's retina, leaving a permanent blind spot according to Sky & Telescope magazine.

Solar prominences are not to be confused with solar flares, which are sudden flashes of light and radiation that are released by tangled magnetic field lines near dark areas of the sun called sunspots.

They are also not to be confused with coronal mass ejections, which are large clouds of charged solar particles that can interact with Earth's atmosphere and cause a geomagnetic storm.

Update 7/19/22, 6:34 a.m. ET: This article has been updated to embed a tweet by Sebastian Voltmer.