On Wednesday October 8, 2014, as sky-watchers were treated to naked-eye images of the blood moon, NASA captured a festive image of our sun, decked out for the spooky season. The image shows a crystal-clear picture of our sun, encircled in glowing, fiery bursts of light, positioned in the shape of eyes, nose, and jagged mouth of a Halloween Jack-O-Lantern (NASA also invited everyone to send their name into space, and eventually to Mars this week).
The image may seem too good to be true, but the facts have us in for a Halloween treat. The active areas shown in the image are storms, and result in increased radiation on the surface of the sun, causing charged particles of matter to erupt from the surface. NASA used specialized instruments to aid in the observation of the sun, allowing it to be seen in different wavelengths of light — light that cannot be seen by the naked eye.
The image in question is a composite of two different images, depicting two different wavelengths, 171 and 193 Angstroms. The ultraviolet light of 171 Angstroms shows a calmer, quieter view of the sun’s atmosphere, while 193 Angstroms captures the hotter, volatile nature of the sun. The Goddard Media Studios website released the following statement by NASA officials clarifying the image’s haunting appearance, “The active regions appear brighter because those are areas that emit more light and energy – markers of an intense and complex set of magnetic fields hovering in the sun’s atmosphere, the corona.”
While the storms in the photo are relatively mild, stronger storms can propel clouds of material toward Earth, sometimes striking our surface. Some storms even have the capability of interrupting satellite communications, and causing electrical outages. The most extreme of these occurrences so far, later labeled The Carrington Event, took place in 1859.
On the first two days in September of that year, a solar storm on the Sun projected electrically-charged particles toward Earth’s surface, resulting in a massive eruption. The eruption lit up the northern sky so brightly that gold miners in the Rocky Mountains are reported to have thought dawn had arrived early. In the eastern United States, the night lights were said to be “bright enough to read a newspaper”. While some were no longer functioning, telegraph machines “rang off the hook,” as we would say today, with calls from disturbed citizens. Some machines even sent signals after being disconnected from power supplies, while others literally shocked operators during use.
There is only about a 12 percent chance that an eruption of the same magnitude as The Carrington Event will strike Earth before the year 2022. However, if it did, it would cause much greater turmoil in our technology-reliant society. For now, these small storms are no threat, and with their timely appearance (and a bit of enhancement) we have our perfect Pumpkin Sun for Halloween.
(Photo courtesy of NASA)