A giant sunspot and Mercury’s silent scream

New sunspot group 1476 dominates the sun's eastern hemisphere today. This photo was taken by the Solar Dynamics Observatory earlier this morning. Credit: NASA

A new sunspot group calls our attention today. Region 1476 rotated around the sun’s eastern limb this weekend and it’s already large enough to see through a safe solar filter with the naked eye. Just how big is it? Try about 62,000 miles or nearly 8 Earths lined up side by side.

Rick Klawitter of Port Angeles, Wash. took this wonderful shot of sunrise in in early April. It took two years of planning to capture just the right angle.

The group’s been sputtering away with M-class flares, none of which is directed toward Earth, but so long as the group grows and its complicated magnetic field persists, we may be in for some fireworks later this week. The sun’s rotation will carry the group into a better lineup with Earth by mid-week. Strong flares that release high speed volleys of electrons and protons could then travel our way and spark displays of northern lights. Timing is good. Sunspots and solar activity have been in the doldrums the past couple weeks, and the moon will be out of the evening sky by Wednesday. Bring it on!

The NOAA space weather forecast calls for a small chance of aurora tonight through tomorrow due to a coronal mass ejection that departed the sun on May 5. I’ll update as needed here if any good storms are imminent.

Norwegian artist Edvard Munch, who painted The Scream (left) in 1893 is also memorialized in the 36-mile-diameter recently named Munch Crater on Mercury (right). Credit on right: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Carnegie Institution of Washington

NASA announced last week that the Mercury Messenger spacecraft, which entered orbit around the planet Mercury on March 18, 2011, snapped its 100,000th photo of that hot little world. It represents a real milestone for the team with more images already in the pipeline. Many of the photos show craters similar to those on the moon. While the moon’s impact holes are named after philosophers, scientists, cosmonauts and the like, Mercury’s craters are named after deceased artists, musicians, painters and authors who’ve made outstanding contributions in their field.

A look through the latest list reveals that Beethoven, Andy Warhol, John Philip Sousa and even Dr. Seuss have recently taken up residence there. If you’re interested in how features are named on the different planets, moons and asteroids, you’ll enjoy skimming the International Astronomical Union’s Gazetteer of Planetary Nomenclature.

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About astrobob

My name is Bob King and I work at the Duluth News Tribune in Duluth, Minn. as a photographer and photo editor. I'm also an amateur astronomer and have been keen on the sky since age 11. My modest credentials include membership in the American Association of Variable Star Observers (AAVSO) where I'm a regular contributor, International Meteorite Collectors Assn. and Arrowhead Astronomical Society. I also teach community education astronomy classes at our local planetarium.

6 thoughts on “A giant sunspot and Mercury’s silent scream

  1. This may be a silly question..But how long will the sun spots stay in line with earth? and just how bad of solar flares could this sun produce? big enough to be harmful to earth?

    • Bobbi,
      They’re roughly in line for about a week. Any large sunspot group has the potential for strong flares. The worst harm would be power outages and damage to satellite electronics. No outages have been reported in the wake of any recent X-class flares from the several large groups we’re seen rotate across the sun over the past year.

  2. THank you Bob.. People are starting to say things like they did about elenin…and they have been very scarey to read….

    • Bobbi,
      Not to worry. Flares are very common and expected. X-class flares are rarer but also expected. So far this group has produced no X-class flares but it does look like it might. Again, nothing unusual from a big group.

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