Sun Barf

So it’s been a while since I’ve posted.


A month.

So today I’m going to be talking about something as accessible as it is science-y. Solar flares. Otherwise known as…


Solar flares can be pretty serious. If they are Ultraviolet rays or X-rays, they can affect the Earth’s atmosphere, and disrupt radio communications.

A solar flare is a sudden brighting observed over the sun; a giant release of energy. Sort of like…sun barf? Anyways, the flare ejects ions (charged particles), atoms, and electrons through space.

A quick review of ions: An ion is a charged atom, where the number of electrons is not equal to the number of protons and neutrons. This produces a charge (either positive or negative).

Before you can understand solar flares, it helps to know a little about the structure of the sun’s atmosphere  (and since the Sun is a star, this information applies to stars in general).

Photo by Spleete 

See the diagram  here:

Promineces: a prominence is a bright feature of the sun- extending outwards in a loop shape, into the sun’s atmosphere. The sun’s atmosphere consists of very, very, hot ionized gas (also known as plasma), but the prominences are cooler plasma.

Photosphere: this is the part of the sun where the light we see originates. It’s what we’re most familiar with; all the light we see coming from the sun travels from the photosphere.

Corona: a corona is a type of plasma ‘atmosphere’, and it has really really high temperatures. Plasma is just gas, really. Except it’s a special kind of gas- it’s ionized. (Basically, it has charged particles).

Now that you know the basic parts of the sun, we can move on to the cause.

Flares are caused by interaction between  accelerated charged particles, and plasma. (Accelerated particles are just particles that speed up).

The acceleration of particles is key in our understanding of solar flares. There is a physics concept that explains why the particles are accelerating, known as Magnetic Reconnection.

Magnetic reconnection is a process by which the essential structure (topology) of the plasma is rearranged, and the particles accelerate. This hypothesis is supported by evidence; solar flares are much bigger where magnetic fields are stronger. (the particles get faster when the magnetic field gets stronger).

Solar flares come in 11 year cycles, and are categorized in classes: A, B, C, M, and X. (Where A is the smallest, and X is the biggest).

Fun facts: 

The first solar flare was observed by a man named Richard Carrington in 1859. Considering the low level of technology back then, it was pretty cool.

During WWII, on February 25th and 26th 1942, British radio operators encountered solar emission radiation first hand.


A lot of technology has been invested in trying to detect solar flares. The two we use now are sattelites named ACE and SOHO. Both have their upsides and downsides.

ACE stands for the Advanced Composition Explorer, and it is stationed at a place in space called the Lagrange 1 point. Essentially, the Lagrange point is the space where any object being acted on by gravity can be relatively motionless.

This means that ACE is always looking at the sun, and not orbiting it, so it always sees the solar flares heading towards Earth’s atmosphere.

SOHO stands for the Solar and Heliospheric Observatory. It was launched in 1995 to study the sun, and was a mutual project between the European Space Agency and NASA. The sattelite SOHO constantly carries 220 kbit/s of a data stream composed of photographs back down to earth.

So that’s my post for today! It’s short, and an easy read, but I hope you learned something or found it interesting. I promise next time I’ll have a long story ready. If you have any comments or questions, you know the drill. Post a comment, and I’ll get back to it ASAP.’

If you want to know more about solar flares, go

–Physicsgirl01 (Pia Sen)


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