This is our star, the sun.a thermonuclear work of art - an atomic blast furnace of super heated gas. Its mass generates the gravitational force holding the entire solar system together.
Actually, astronomically speaking, stars like our sun are rather unusual. Most stars are cooler in temperature or fainter. And, in many instances, they can also be much larger in size.
But even though it's considered small, you can fit more then 1 million Earths inside it. And though it's not as hot as many of the brightest stars in the universe, the sun's corona - that's the super heated gas above it's surface - is about 2 million degrees centigrade. That's about 3 million degrees Fahrenheit.
Most likely, the only time you think about the sun's effects is when you put on sunscreen to protect your skin from the sun's harmful ultraviolet rays. But the sun is bombarding Earth with more then just light and heat.
The sun is a very turbulent, violent and ever changing star, constantly blowing off material in all directions. We call this material the solar wind. The sun produces storms, like sunspots and flares, that are many times the size of Earth. The sun can act like a cosmic shotgun blasting billions of tons of charged material out into the solar system. These events can have a profound effect on our environment here on Earth.
Solar storms can effect our lives in ways that you may not expect. Take for example, an event that occurred on March 14th, 1989. At 2:45am, power was cut off to 6 million people living in eastern Canada for 9 hours. This black out caused millions of dollars of damage to power line systems and electrical equipment.
And just think of the chaos. Traffic lights didn't work causing wide spread traffic jams, people couldn't watch TV, play video games, or listen to CDs. And think about those who had to endure more serious and even life threatening problems trapped in elevators... and surgery rooms.
So what happened?
We know that Hurricanes can tear up homes and power lines. And many of us have experienced thunderstorms where lighting has knocked out power to our home.
The cause of THIS black out lies some 150 million kilometers from Earth. Yes, the sun. This black out was caused by an explosive event on the sun called a coronal mass ejection. This particular coronal mass ejection blasted billions of tons of electrically charged particles directly at Earth inducing huge electrical currents. This electrical activity can damage our power distribution systems.
This view from a satellite instrument on the Solar and Heliosperic Observatory, or SOHO for short, shows charged material, called plasma, spewing from the sun in all directions. The paddle shape blocks the bright, direct sun light from the camera, allowing it to view the sun's corona. And this creates a virtual eclipse. And that white circle in the center represents the sun's size
When the sun has a coronal mass ejection, billions of tons of electrically charged material is blasted off into space at tremendous speeds. This one won't hit Earth, it's going off to the side.
This one came right at us.
ODENWALD: "As the sun becomes more active, these storms become much more frequent. Most of the time they completely miss the Earth. But once and a while, the Earth happens to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. And when that happens, you wind up with communications difficulties with satellites, you wind up with blackouts on the ground, and you can even wind up with health problems if you happen to be an astronaut orbiting in space."