See the sun erupt in a dazzling display in this history-making image

A look at the sun, with a large plume of plasma visibly erupting in a wide, looping arc in the top left quadrant of the image.
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Talk about a sense of scale.

This image of a solar prominence erupting from our sun isn’t notable for just the arcing plume of plasma cutting a path through outer space. It’s the whole scene that’s important: the solar prominence, the full view of the sun it’s emanating from, and most importantly the sense of scale you get when you see them both in full view, side by side.

This first-of-its-kind image marks the largest solar prominence eruption ever captured in a single image alongside the entirety of the sun, as the European Space Agency (ESA) confirmed in a Friday blog. It comes to us from the Solar Orbiter, a sun-observing satellite developed by the ESA and funded in part by NASA.

A look at the sun, with a large plume of plasma visibly erupting in a wide, looping arc in the top left quadrant of the image.

Credit: Solar Orbiter/EUI Team/ESA & NASA

We can thank a combination of luck and timing for this eye-catching look into the heart of our solar system. On Feb. 15, when the event occurred, the Solar Orbiter was still far enough out that its Full Sun Imager, which is exactly what it sounds like, had enough room at the margins of the image to also take in the full solar prominence. Just as fortuitously, the eruption appeared to be traveling away from Earth.

Had the solar prominence occurred a month later, the Solar Orbiter’s closer proximity to the sun at the time — its closest approach of the year falls on March 26 — would have resulted in a less complete picture. Similarly, an eruption that aimed more in the direction of Earth could have disrupted the Solar Orbiter’s monitoring work.

A solar prominence is a type of coronal mass ejection. Unlike solar flares, in which energy is released suddenly before being absorbed back into the sun, a solar prominence eruption sends massive concentrations of plasma jetting off into space, often along an arc shaped by the immense gravitational forces surrounding the star.

That’s what you’re seeing here. The billowing plasma burst visible in the top-left quadrant of the image is our solar prominence, and while its outermost edges are a bit faint, it’s easy to see the loop it’s formed with any close inspection. Also unlike a solar flare, a prominence like this can last for weeks, even months.

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