The picture below was taken by the SDO last week.
Isn’t that slick? If you don’t immediately notice it, look at the base of the flare, where I placed a tiny blue dot, which is roughly the size of Mother Earth. (Yes, the dot is squarish; a result of my limited graphical abilities; the scale, however, is accurate.)
Now, flares are often associated with things that looks similar, but are far more dangerous: coronal mass ejections. CMEs are a wind so hot that even atoms cannot stand the pressure; they dissolve into singular protons and electrons called a plasma.
Can you imagine what would happen if a CME of the size pictured were aimed directly at the Earth? No more NASA outreach, that’s what. Nor much of anything else, either. The lesson must be: don’t anger the Sun lest it unleash its fury upon you.
Unless, that is, you are part of a technologically superior, evil, conquering alien race. It shouldn’t be too hard for these alien masterminds—or for psychotic, Earth-bound, reclusive, minion-hiring billionaires—to invent a device which manipulates the sun’s magnetic field so that it squeezes out a CME in the direction of a populated planet. Could this be the beginning of a movie treatment?
Of course, in real life, aliens aren’t interested in poking the sun, just probing lonely females. Also, when the sun lashes out, our Blue Mother protects us by (1) placing herself far enough from Father Sun to be spared the brunt of his anger, and (2) wrapping us in our own shield-like magnetic field, which “deflects” most of the CME harmlessly off into outer space. But only most; something always leaks through, and if enough does, havoc is wreaked on the electrical and communications grid, in the form of power and cell phone outages. These in turn cause disquiet, nervousness, and tears.
But if we were a little closer to Father Sun, or if Mother’s magnetic shield weren’t there, we’d see some real global warming, boy. It would be a temporary toasting, but it would be real.
Incidentally, it’s the CMEs that you can’t see that are the real danger. The flare pictured above lashed out away from the Earth, at something like a right angle. The flares and CMEs that head straight for us appear like a faint yellow ring that widens as it gets closer to the Earth.
These rings are harder to notice than the brilliant tentacles that shoot off in the wrong direction. Which is why, naturally, the SDO is there; to be able to find the dangerous CMEs in time to warn the pertinent authorities.
There is usually plenty of time to get the word out to duck and cover, too. Light leaving the surface of the sun, as we all know, takes about eight minutes to make the trip, where it finally impinges on your skin, which, if you’re unlucky, is encouraged to become cancerous.
But CMEs, being made of lightweight plasma, which isn’t as light as light and therefore slower, take anywhere from one to three days to get here. This is usually enough time to notice the CME and then begin the warning process; which consists in peeling through various layers of bureaucracy until someone with the guts to make a decision can be found.
If the warning turns out to be a false alarm, the decision maker is usually fired, and an apparatchik in installed in this place. Thus, even when the warning system doesn’t lead to a valid protection of expensive equipment, it at least serves to strengthen and grow the bureaucracy. Everybody wins.
Since the CMEs are slow, there would also be enough time—but barely—to hire a quirky band of renegade scientists, who, after jumping through flaming hoops, some of which are in the shape of pretty girls, which pop up randomly in their path, and after showing the chief minion or evil alien the superiority of American-style fisticuffs, would at the last second set off a device which boosts Mother Nature’s protective shield, thus shunting away the destructive solar rays and saving civilization.
And also getting the girl. But that goes without saying.