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Tornado on the Sun: Huge Solar Storm Caught on Film

2 minute read
Michael D. Lemonick

It’s one of the all-time great fun facts about space, and you probably learned it in third grade: the planet Jupiter is home to a huge, perpetual hurricane known as the Great Red Spot, so immense that it could swallow up three Earths. That’s very old news, though: the Spot may have been spotted as early as 1665 and was seen for sure in 1830. Since the advent of modern telescopes and space probes, astronomers have found angry weather all over the solar system, including storms on Saturn, Uranus, Neptune and Venus. Even Mars, with hardly any atmosphere to speak of, is regularly swept by gigantic dust storms.

In short, the idea of tempests on other planets is pretty much a yawn nowadays. But even for the cosmically jaded, a new report out of NASA’s orbiting Solar Dynamics Observatory is hard to ignore. On Sept. 25, the spacecraft recorded a mammoth tornado on the sun — a storm five times the width of Earth, reaching high into the solar atmosphere, with winds clocked at a blazing 300,000 km/h (186,000 m.p.h.). “Blazing,” in this case, is not a figurative term: the gases entrained in the tornado reached an estimated 2 million°C — that’s 3.6 million°F, although at temperatures like that, the scale hardly matters. The storm lasted at least three hours and traveled about 200,000 km (125,000 miles) — and there’s a movie, the first ever filmed of such a storm, to prove it.

(PHOTOS: Amazing Photos of the Sun)

Unlike twisters on Earth, which are born out of roiling air, the solar variety is triggered by intense magnetic storms. In fact, tornadoes on the sun often show up in the same places as coronal mass ejections, or CMEs, the eruptions that send blobs of charged particles out into space — and all too frequently, directly toward our planet. Solar astrophysicists even think the tornadoes may act as triggers for CMEs.

Now that scientists have filmed one solar tornado, they’ll be on the lookout for more. Given the damage CMEs can wreak on communications networks on Earth, it could pay to have the best possible sense of when the next one might be coming.

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