On January 4, the sun produced the most complex coronal mass ejection since the one seen by an international solar observatory six years ago. The eruption looked like a twisting assemblage of bright patches and unleashed billions of tons of particles at speeds of about 2.2 million mph.

The sun?s magnetic field lines were responsible for the intricate burst of energy, according to Paal Brekke, a scientist with the Solar and Heliospheric Observatory (SOHO), a joint project of NASA and the European Space Agency. ?The complexity and structure … amazed even experienced solar physicists at the SOHO operations center,? he says. ?It shows lots of structures, lots of filaments. They get twisted up like rubber bands and sometimes they can just snap.?

Solar storms are packed with charged molecules and magnetic forces, and when headed in our direction they can smash into the upper atmosphere, producing colorful aurora displays and making electrical systems go haywire on everything from satellites to power grids.

In 1989, one such geomagnetic storm knocked out the main electrical utility in Quebec, Canada, plunging millions of people into darkness for hours and costing billions of dollars to fix. Fortunately, Brekke says, ?This one went out of the side of the sun and is not heading toward Earth.? When you see photos of sunspots, note that SOHO sometimes needs to block out the direct solar rays with a protective filter to protect the camera, and this is seen in some pictures as a darkened disk. If you see a white circle, it depicts the sun.

To learn more, read ?The 23rd Cycle? by Sten Odenwald, click here.

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