Watch swirling magnetic loops on the sun in mesmerizing NASA video

An entrancing set of swirls on the sun's surface gets even brighter thanks to a perfectly placed eruption.

Michael Franco
Freelancer Michael Franco writes about the serious and silly sides of science and technology for CNET and other pixel and paper pubs. He's kept his fingers on the keyboard while owning a B&B in Amish country, managing an eco-resort in the Caribbean, sweating in Singapore, and rehydrating (with beer, of course) in Prague. E-mail Michael.
Michael Franco
2 min read

For the giant, chaotic, swirling mass of fire and poison gas that our sun is, it sure can be beautiful and graceful.

Case in point -- the video released by NASA today that shows "arches of bundled magnetic loops" on the surface of the sun. The video was taken by NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory (SDO) during 16 hours over November 11 and 12.

Magnetic fields are invisible unless some kind of particle travels along their course making their shape visible to our eye; think of iron filings sprinkled onto a piece of paper above a bar magnet. In this case, NASA says these magnetic lines on the sun show up because of charged particles, or plasma, traveling along them and emitting light on extreme ultraviolet wavelengths.

To make the swirls visible to the human eye, the helpful folks at NASA colored them gold.

Something to look for in this snippet of sun-gazing comes at about the 7-second mark, when a section of the swirls gets brighter. NASA says an eruption in the middle of the swirls caused the magnetic field to rearrange itself, hence the flashier show.

As you might remember, magnetic fields link points with opposite polarities like the north and south poles on the Earth. The sun, however, has points of differing polarities all across its surface that are constantly in flux. The particles that dance between these points form the swirls, known as coronal loops, some of which can extend thousands of kilometers into the air through the sun's corona, or upper atmosphere.

The spacecraft that captured this particular solar display -- the SDO -- was launched by NASA in February 2010. Since then, it's been orbiting the Earth in such a way that affords a near-constant view of the sun. It provides a steady stream of data to a station here on Earth at what's considered a high transmission rate of 130Mbps.