On Jan. 20, NASA spied an explosion more than 90 million miles from home.
The massive shimmering ball of plasma at the heart of our solar system (aka the sun) let loose a solar flare on Thursday, and NASA’s sun-observing Solar Dynamics Observatory captured the moment. And now, a pair of freshly released GIFs — technically, one is just a zoomed-in version of the main one — highlight the eye-popping burst of energy.
Here’s the full image. Even zoomed out, the solar flare is very hard to miss. Just watch the right side of the image; you’ll know it when you see it.
And here’s the zoomed-in view of the same moment.
NASA calls this a “mid-level” flare, with an M5.5 classification which speaks to the strength of the space weather event in the context of its impact on Earth. See, solar flares like this are essentially a massive release of electromagnetic radiation. When an outburst occurs, that radiation spreads out across our solar system at the speed of light. And when it’s powerful enough, the burst of energy can directly influence radio waves, electronics, and other Earth-based technologies (specific impacts depend on the amount and type of energy that gets released).
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) “space weather scale” has this solar flare event at the second-lowest measure. A “moderate” radio blackout event, which is what this was with its M5 classification, has the potential to black out high-frequency radio communications “for tens of minutes” on Earth’s sunlit side after solar flare occurs. It can also mess with low-frequency navigation signals — that’s not your typical smartphone GPS (or most modern navigational technology), to be clear — for a similar amount of time.
Even if you know nothing about any of the underlying science, it’s still plenty cool to look at these images of our distant sun and see a visible eruption of energy. But if you do want to learn more, spaceweather.gov is a great place to start.