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CME WEEK: What To See in CME Images

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CME WEEK: What To See in CME Images

Two main types of explosions occur on the sun: solar flares and coronal mass ejections. Unlike the energy and x-rays produced in a solar flare – which can reach Earth at the speed of light in eight minutes – coronal mass ejections are giant, expanding clouds of solar material that take one to three days to reach Earth. Once at Earth, these ejections, also called CMEs, can impact satellites in space or interfere with radio communications. During CME WEEK from Sept. 22 to 26, 2014, we explore different aspects of these giant eruptions that surge out from the star we live with.

When a coronal mass ejection blasts off the sun, scientists rely on instruments called coronagraphs to track their progress. Coronagraphs block out the bright light of the sun, so that the much fainter material in the solar atmosphere -- including CMEs -- can be seen in the surrounding space.

CMEs appear in these images as expanding shells of material from the sun's atmosphere -- sometimes a core of colder, solar material (called a filament) from near the sun's surface moves in the center. But mapping out such three-dimensional components from a two-dimensional image isn't easy. Watch the slideshow to find out how scientists interpret what they see in CME pictures.
 

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The images in the slideshow are from the three sets of coronagraphs NASA currently has in space. One is on the joint European Space Agency and NASA Solar and Heliospheric Observatory, or SOHO. SOHO launched in 1995, and sits between Earth and the sun about a million miles away from Earth. The other two coronagraphs are on the two spacecraft of the NASA Solar Terrestrial Relations Observatory, or STEREO, mission, which launched in 2006. The two STEREO spacecraft are both currently viewing the far side of the sun.

Together these instruments help scientists create a three-dimensional model of any CME as its journey unfolds through interplanetary space. Such information can show why a given characteristic of a CME close to the sun might lead to a given effect near Earth, or any other planet in the solar system.

Related Links

› More on CME Week
› More on SOHO
› More on STEREO
› Flickr Gallery of CME Images

Karen C. Fox
NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Md.

Page Last Updated: June 14th, 2016
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