Big sunspot group 2473 cut loose a long-lasting M-class flare earlier today. The explosion produced a fast-moving bubble of plasma directed toward Earth. Plasma, a hot mix of negatively-charged electrons and positively-charged ions (atoms that have lost an electron) may look like a gas but it behaves differently enough to be considered its own state of matter, alongside the familiar solid, liquid and gas.
Unlike neutral gases, like the air we breathe, a plasma is made of electrically-charged particles that respond to electric currents and magnetic fields, fields identical to ones that make a magnet stick to your refrigerator. Plasma can also interact with itself to produce local concentrations of magnetism and electricity, but overall a cloud of plasma has no “charge”. It’s neutral.
Solar plasma is made of busted up hydrogen atoms. In a happy, neutral hydrogen atom, an electron orbits a single proton in the nucleus. But in the fiercely hot and energized environment of the sun, the atoms are torn apart into individual protons and electrons or plasma.
When a CME arrives at Earth, as this one is forecast to sometime on New Year’s Eve, there’s a fair chance it will make electrical and magnetic connections with our planet’s own magnetic field. Particles within the plasma can then be accelerated down the Earth’s field lines, which resemble Einstein’s hair, and into the polar regions. High in atmosphere, anywhere from about 60 to 300 miles up, the fast-moving particles strike oxygen atoms and nitrogen molecules, pumping up their energies. When the atoms and molecules “settle back down” they release that energy as spitballs of red, green and blue colored light called photons.
Can you guess how much of the observable universe is plasma vs. solid, liquid and gas? How about 99%! That may surprise you, but look up at the sky the next clear night. All those stars you see and all the gas snaking between the stars you don’t see — plasma. Every time you feel the sunshine on your face, you can thank the 4th state of matter.
But back to our big sunspot group. It’s a complicated magnetic mess, so more flares are expected. There’s also a large coronal hole kicking out some high speed plasma of its own. No moon will mar the sky later this week, so keep watch for northern lights. I’ll update if things look good.