Round-up: sunspots and solar flares


Scientists are edging ever closer to an understanding of the Sun’s unpredictable outbursts.


An enormous coronal mass ejection that occurred on 31 August 2012.
An enormous coronal mass ejection that occurred on 31 August 2012.
NASA / SDO

Sunspots have puzzled astronomers for centuries, and the more recent discovery of solar flares and coronal mass ejections (in which huge amounts of plasma are flung from the Sun’s corona) have likewise maintained their mystery. The three phenomena are no doubt related, however, and scientists are slowly putting together the pieces with the aid of high-tech observations and mind-bogglingly complex computer simulations.

Below are some of the more interesting recent discoveries.

  • Mapping the hot mess of the Sun’s complex magnetic field has helped – read on.
  • Huge filaments of plasma that writhe all over the Sun’s surface may depend on interactions between charged particles and the magnetic field, in a process may be responsible for much of the Sun’s extreme heat – read on.
  • In September 2017, NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory caught footage of two massive solar flares – read on.
  • A computer simulation suggests that shockwaves in the Sun’s plasma that whip particles up to enormous speed may be responsible for cosmic rays, as well as solar flares – read on.
  • Another recent theory suggest that giant sheets of plasma shredding into smaller pieces may produce high-energy breaks in the magnetic field which in turn set off solar flares – read on.
  • Yet another proposal claims that the shape of the magnetic field around solar flares is the key: twisted ropes of magnetic flux form inside a magnetic “cage”, and the final result depends on which is stronger – read on.
Michael Lucy is features editor of Cosmos.
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