100 Days Until Totality! 93 Days Left – What are Solar Prominences?

Credit: NASA www.nasa.gov

During totality, we may be lucky enough to see objects in the Sun’s chromosphere known as solar prominences. These objects appear as small wispy red bumps sticking out from the red glow of the chromosphere at the Moon’s edge. Although they appear small, prominences are massive! They are often many times larger than the Earth. Prominences are caused by the Sun’s intense magnetic field, which is incredibly complex and intensely strong. Its shape is constantly changing and churning. Occasionally, stronger parts of the field expand away from the surface of the Sun and carry charged particles from the Sun with it, and that is what we observe when we see prominences. They are not permanent formations, and they only last for a few days or a few months. Prominences eventually collapse back down into the Sun.

Solar prominences are often confused with solar flares. A solar flare is a similar phenomenon in which a prominence is created. Rather than eventually falling back down, the prominence is catapulted away from the Sun. Solar flares cause the auroras that are seen near the north or south poles of the Earth. You may have heard that solar flares can cause major power outages and be dangerous to electronics, but this is actually a misconception. Events called coronal mass ejections (CME’s) are the true culprits. CME’s are a slower but more powerful version of a solar flare. The connection between solar prominences, CME’s, and solar flares is a major current topic of research in solar astronomy.

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