NASA investigates a dramatic, never-before-seen eruption on the sun

A rare, complicated solar eruption could help explain the mysteries of the sun's outbursts.

Amanda Kooser
Freelance writer Amanda C. Kooser covers gadgets and tech news with a twist for CNET. When not wallowing in weird gear and iPad apps for cats, she can be found tinkering with her 1956 DeSoto.
Amanda Kooser
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This solar eruption in 2016 could be the "Rosetta Stone" of explosions on our sun.

NASA video screenshot by Amanda Kooser/CNET

There's a moody ball of heat at the center of our solar system, and scientists want to know what causes it to erupt on occasion. A "dramatic, multi-staged eruption" is the subject of a new study. NASA is calling it "a solar Rosetta Stone."

The eruption is the first of its kind to be reported. Researchers classify the sun's eruptions as coronal mass ejections, jets or partial eruptions. The outburst was a package deal with characteristics of all three types.

The three flavors of eruptions are usually distinct. Coronal mass ejections, or CMEs, act like big bubbles that push energy and particles from the sun out into space. Jets do a similar thing, but are narrow. Partial eruptions are what they sound like: They look like they're going to escape, but then collapse back down into the sun.  

A NASA video dissects the eruption and talks about how solar outbursts can impact astronauts in space and technology on Earth.

"This event is a missing link, where we can see all of these aspects of different types of eruptions in one neat little package," said solar scientist Emily Mason of NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in a statement on Monday. "It drives home the point that these eruptions are caused by the same mechanism, just at different scales." 

Mason is the lead author of a study on the eruption -- which occurred in March 2016 -- that has been accepted for publication to the Astrophysical Journal Letters. NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory and the European Space Agency and NASA's Solar and Heliospheric Observatory both documented the unusual event. 

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"Understanding the mechanism behind these events, especially CMEs, is of critical importance to predicting when a large eruption might cause disruptions at Earth," said NASA. Case in point: A major burst of solar flares in May put Earthlings on alert for auroras and possible tech disruptions.

According to a Universities Space Research Association statement on Monday, the next step in the investigation is to create computer models of the event. "If we can essentially scale up what we already know about jet eruptions, we may gain important insights on how CMEs erupt as well," said Mason. And that could help us better prepare for and react to the sun's moods both out in space and here on Earth.

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