Our Sun is vitally important to our continued existence, but it’s also a volatile object with a spicy personality. Coronal mass ejections, or CMEs, are dramatic outbursts during which the Sun blasts charged particles into space at incredibly high speeds. These outbursts occur more often when the star is in one of its more active phases, but thanks to NASA’s Parker Solar Probe, scientists were able to capture one happening completely out of the blue.
As Space.com reports, scientists studying data from the probe discovered that in November of 2018, while the Sun appeared to be nice and calm from Earth, a “stealth” coronal mass ejection was actually happening.
“If you’ve ever seen a coronal mass ejection image, you normally see a lot of activity in these images,” Kelly Korreck of the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory told attendees at a recent meeting of the American Astronomical Society. “You would see a large blowout, you would probably see one of these exploding.”
On video, it doesn’t appear that the Sun is doing anything out of the ordinary, but the Parker Solar Probe’s instruments picked up the telltale magnetic signs that a coronal mass ejection was happening. Additional investigation helped to support this idea, and scientists found evidence of a blast of charged particles.
Understanding the mechanics that drive these intense events is crucial for scientists that dream of one day being able to predict them with greater accuracy. CMEs, when not aimed at Earth, aren’t a big deal, but if a wave of high energy particles comes sweeping past Earth it can seriously mess with our technology. That means downtime for communications satellites and, depending on how intense the activity is, such bursts may even pose a danger to crewed missions traveling from Earth to new destinations.
Spotting the “stealth” burst took a bit of luck, but now that astronomers have witnessed one, they’re better equipped to detect them in the future.