An astrophotographer captured a hauntingly beautiful image of a massive plasma plume shooting out of the sun.
The fiery filament known as a coronal mass ejection (CME), which the photographer said extended into space more than 1 million miles (1.6 million kilometers) from the Sun’s surface.
The CME was part of a minor solar storm – Class G-1, the lowest category of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Geomagnetic Storm Scale – and rejected Earthcorresponding SpaceWeather.com.
The ethereal sputum was “the biggest CME I’ve ever experienced,” McCarthy wrote on Reddit.
The plasma was originally contained in a large loop connected to the Sunknown as the prominence, and then broke off and poured into space at about 100,000 mph (161,000 km/h), McCarthy added.
The photo is a false-color composite time-lapse image that stacks hundreds of thousands of images taken over a six-hour period, McCarthy wrote.
Between 30 and 80 frames per second were recorded and then stored in a file that ended up being around 800 gigabytes in size. The images were then combined to show the CME in glorious detail.
In the photo, the Sun’s surface and CME appear orange—in reality, they are not. The chromosphere (the lowest region of the Sun’s atmosphere) and CMEs naturally emit a type of light that looks pink to us and is known as hydrogen-alpha or H-alpha light.
But because the exposure time of each image was so short, the original images were almost entirely white. McCarthy digitally added the orange while compositing the final image to create contrast between individual structures on the Sun’s surface and to emphasize the CME.
However, since the rest of the image has not been filtered with orange, the sun retains an eerie white halo that contrasts with the dark background of space.
CMEs have become more frequent in recent months as the Sun has entered a period of increased solar activity known as Solar Maximum, which lasts about seven years. This will give people a lot more opportunities to take similar pictures.
“We’ll see more of this as we get closer to solar maximum,” McCarthy wrote. The plasma clouds are also likely to be “progressively larger,” he added.
The photographer warned people not to watch the sun without the right gear.
“Don’t point a telescope at the sun,” McCarthy wrote on reddit. “You will burn your camera or worse, your eyes.”
The telescope he used to photograph the CME was “specially modified with multiple filters” to safely observe the CME and capture the images, he added.