Space Image Shows Record-Breaking Solar Eruption Spanning Millions of Miles

A spacecraft jointly operated by NASA and the European Space Agency (ESA) has made a record-breaking observation of a giant solar eruption.

On February 15, the ESA/NASA Solar Orbiter witnessed a coronal mass ejection (CME) extending outward from the sun, millions of miles into space.

CMEs are large expulsions of plasma (one of the four fundamental states of matter containing a significant proportion of charged particles) and magnetic field from the sun's corona—the outermost part of our star's atmosphere.

ESA said the event observed on February 15 was the largest solar prominence eruption ever observed in a single image together with the full solar disc.

Solar prominences are huge, loop-like structures on the edge of the solar disc that sometimes stand out brightly against the dark background of space, according to the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research.

These prominences are shaped by the sun's complex magnetic field, often forming loops, with each end connected to the sun's surface.

Solar prominences can last for several days, or even months. In some cases, they erupt and break apart, resulting in coronal mass ejections.

CMEs that are directed towards Earth can cause geomagnetic storms, which can have a significant impact on both ground- and space-based technological systems. Fortunately, the CME observed on February 15 was directed away from our planet.

In fact, the ESA said there was no signature of the eruption on the side of the sun facing the Solar Orbiter spacecraft, meaning that the CME must have originated on the side facing away from us.

The imagery of the solar eruption was captured by the Solar Orbiter's "Full Sun Imager" (FSI) instrument, which is designed to observe the full solar disc, even during close flybys of the sun.

For example, on March 26, the Solar Orbiter will make one of its closest approaches to the sun, but the FSI will still be able to see the full solar disc, although the star will take up a much larger proportion of the telescope's field of view.

In the imagery captured on February 15, there is a much larger "viewing margin" around the sun's disc, with the instrument capturing details out to around 2.2 million miles—equivalent to roughly five times the radius of the star.

Solar activity like this is often observed by other spacecraft, such as the ESA/NASA SOHO satellite. But in these observations, the solar prominence eruptions are not visible in a single field of view together with the solar disc.

As a result, the latest imagery opens up new possibilities to see how events like these connect to the solar disc for the first time, according to the ESA.

"What is special about this is the observation of a prominence eruption over such a large field of view above the sun's limb," Daniel Müller, an ESA Solar Orbiter project scientist, told Newsweek. "Most other solar imagers can observe less than one solar radius above the limb, while this observation captures a much larger scene.

"This is possible because the field of view of the Full Sun Imager is so large that it can observe the entire sun and surrounding corona also when the spacecraft is at close distance to the sun."

The Solar Orbiter spacecraft—which features six telescopes and four instruments that monitor the environment around the probe—was launched on February 10, 2020. Its mission is expected to last seven years, with the spacecraft making a close approach to the sun every six months.

The most complex scientific laboratory ever sent to study our star, the Solar Orbiter has been designed to take the closest images to date of the sun, while also capturing close-up images of its polar regions, among other investigations.

Update 02/28/22, 9:29 a.m. ET: This article was updated to include comments from Daniel Müller.

A giant solar eruption
The Full Sun Imager instrument on board the ESA/NASA Solar Orbiter spacecraft captured a giant solar eruption on 15 February, 2022. ESA said it was the largest solar prominence eruption ever observed in a single image together with the full solar disc. Solar Orbiter/EUI Team/ESA & NASA