Watch a tornado of fire get blasted off the sun


Twisters on the sun spotted by NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory April 29-30

Imagine a tornado larger than the Earth made of incandescent hydrogen gas. If you’re having trouble, just watch the video. NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory took a series of photos on April 29 and 30 to create this awesome movie of a whirling plasma tornado flung into space. Such beautiful violence.

Plasma’s one of the four states of matter after solid, liquid and gas and perhaps surprisingly, the most common. That’s because stars are made of the stuff. Most gases we’re familiar with are neutral, but plasma is a gas made of charged particles – positive ions and negative electrons. It not only conducts electricity but under the influence of a magnetic field it can form flame-like filaments called prominences. Guess what’s got magnetism to spare? The sun of course.

A large prominence on Dec 6, 2010 with Jupiter and Earth images superimposed to demonstrate the size. Prominences come in all sizes; many are larger than Earth. Credit: NASA/SDO

That’s what you see in the video but only in ultraviolet light. Prominences are also visible with the naked eye during a total solar eclipse when they appear as pink flames around the the sun’s edge. With the right filters, they can viewed anytime the sun is out.

Plasma/prominences can remain suspended for hours by magnetic fields like fire floating on air, but watch out. Competing magnetic forces can sometimes pull and stretch a prominence until BOING, it’s flung off the sun and into space.


Another plasma “tornado” on the sun from Sept. 25, 2011

You can see the twisted strands of plasma shift back and forth before the whole mass gets the boot. The prominence appears dark in the images taken in ultraviolet light because it’s cooler than its surroundings. As the video demonstrates, these are dramatic events, and they happen regularly on our turbulent star.

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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.

8 thoughts on “Watch a tornado of fire get blasted off the sun

  1. Awesome- I never knew that was the definition of plasma. I do have to say the soundtracks for those videos creeped me out!

  2. Cool video, Bob – or should I say “hot”..
    You quite anticipate the reply to a question I wanted to ask you just today, when you write “Prominences are also visible with the naked eye during a total solar eclipse when they appear as pink flames around the the sun’s edge”. A while ago I was amazed to see on web photos of red prominences captured during a total eclipse without the need of an H-alpha filter, and was wondering if that is also catched at naked eye. I’m asking this because, as you know, human eye night vision is insensible in red, so while eye sees at day in an H-alpha telescope, at night eye doesn’t catch the red part of an emission nebula. And prominences are a bit less bright than the sun disc. So I was wondering how eye sees prominences in solar eclipse, since the light level drops, I guess, to kind like twilight, where eye uses both day (cones) and night (rodes) vision. You say “pink”, maybe that’s how the eye sees them. I never saw a total solar eclipse so maybe you could tell me better which color did you see and how much easily. Thanx!

    • Hi Giorgio,
      Yes, they are pink – that’s how they looked to my eye. I’ve seen three total eclipses and the prominences were visible as pink flames sticking out from the solar limb into the sun’s corona. I saw them in my camera, with the naked eye and in binoculars. Totality is an insanely exciting time, but I’ll never forget them or the “quivering” look to the sun’s corona. When I saw it in Baja in 1991 in binoculars (best view) it almost looked alive. Nothing like it in the heavens.

      • Thanx for your stories Bob, a must see (and a rare case when it’s safe to watch Sun in unfiltered binoculars). I wonder if the pink appearance is due to a mixed cones/rod eye vision (were the prominence bright or weak?), or rather due to a (lost of) saturation for high brightness, just as in overexposed H-alpha photos – what do you think? (did the camera reflect the same color you saw?)

        • Giorgio,
          It’s been some years, but I recall the prominences being bright, easy to see especially in binoculars (almost forgot, I also saw them in a small scope). They clearly looked a different color compared to the deep red of H-alpha. I’ve used a Daystar H-alpha solar setup for years and have seen many prominences outside of eclipse. Most are quiescent but occasionally active ones and rarely, looped prominences, are visible. Have you viewed in H-alpha?

          • Yes Bob, last year I got a Coronado PST scope – you now see why I’m glad the Sun is exhibiting this second peak of the solar cycle! It’s great that Coronado and Lunt produce such budget H-alpha solutions, as I had to save money for night accessories. Yes I saw many prominences, flares, filaments.

            And I got nice photos. At beginning I simply used the DSLR: although the PST hasn’t enough back focus for it, I use eyepiece projection in a threaded zoom eyepiece, it works fine!
            Of course I recently started to use the popular planetary technique to kill air turbulence – stacking movie frames captured by a CCD (in the case of PST, inserted through a Barlow to reach the back focus). This of course gives details and higher sensibility to the H-alpha red (I still use also the DSLR method when I want a quick shot of the entire chromosphere face, also for reference). I should find the time to elaborate the movies into hires pictures, but the first test results are very satisfactory, especially for prominences. I put the PST on piggyback on the solar-filtered CPC so I get the photosphere as well. The CPC is now equipped with equatorial wedge, so I can do long movies and sessions – I will even try an H-alpha timelapse in future – just yesterday I saw a prominence or small CME which seemed to change in few minutes.

            Congrats for the Daystar – high quality products. Which model do you have?

          • Giorgio,
            It sounds like you are having a lot of great observing and photography with your H-alpha scope. I have a Daystar 0.7 angstrom filter that uses a small internal heater to remain at a stable temperature. It’s an older model with a small box and knob built into the cord to make minor temperature adjustments this side or that of the passband to see additional details in filaments, flares, etc. I chose 0.7 A because it gives equally good views of prominences and disk detail.

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