Between the 25th October and 1st November 2003 three huge spots appeared on the Sun. Even though only two were ever visible at once, owing to the Sun's rotation and the temporary nature of sunspots, this was an unprecedented event - never before had two such large spots been seen together at the same time. The event was even more remarkable as the Sun is now past its 11 year cycle of maximum activity, the last peak being in 2002.
The pictures below are my record of this unusual event. As always, looking at the Sun is dangerous - see here for what is and is not safe and the filters I use to get the shots you see below.
These sunspots were very active areas and two of them created great outbursts, called Coronal Mass Ejections, that shot radiation and plasma in our direction. Between 29 and 31 October the Earth suffered intense bombardment that caused damage to satellites and radio communications, and on a more positive note, created wonderful auroras that lit up the night sky, including in areas well away from the poles.
The first CME, from sunspot 486, took place around 1100UT on the 28th, arriving at the Earth in record time on the morning of the 29th. For UK observers it was daylight, but the effect lasted until the evening, which unfortunately was clouded out as it coincided with the passage of a weather front. The second CME, from spot 488, arrived on the evening of the 30th, but it too coincided with another weather system, so it is with real regret that I missed the show. The UK weather has a lot to answer for!
Never before have two such large sunspots been seen on the face of the Sun at the same time. Number 486 lies to the left and number 484 towards the right.
Despite being slightly cooler than the surrounding areas, these are regions of intense violence that blast off high energy plasma and magnetic fields that interfere with the Earth causing radio and electricity blackouts as well as beautiful Northern and Southern Lights.
Click the picture or here for a Hydrogen-Alpha view of the same scene, which not only shows spots but also the flame-like prominences of gas thrown clear of the Sun by explosions on the surface.
These spots were easily visible to the naked eye, with suitable eye protection of course. See here for what is and is not safe, and an explanation of how the different types of filter I use allow the Sun to be observed safely.
The scale and power of these sunspots is enormous. See these white light close-ups for a size comparison with the Earth (486, 484) and the H-Alpha ones for a better view of the twisted magnetic field lines around the spots (486, 484).
Sunspot 486 has now been carried towards the right, while spot 484 has disappeared completely around the edge of the Sun. This movement is the product of the Sun's 25 day rotation period.
Meanwhile a new huge spot, 488, has developed, and lies above 486. In the days between these two pictures both spots exploded with Coronal Mass Ejections, but the UK was cursed with a run of bad weather so I missed the wonderful Northern Lights that they caused.
|SOHO Movie of the Coronal Mass Ejection|
|SpaceWeather archive of the Auroras caused|