Ellerman bombs: A tiny explosion on the Sun that has the power of 100,000 atomic bombs

A coronal mass ejection from a solar filament is expected later in the week.
Ameya Paleja
An active region on the sun with dark sunspots
An active region on the sun with dark sunspots

NASA/SDO/AIA/HMI/Goddard Space Flight Center 

Space enthusiasts are in for a treat this week after a photographer captured a phenomenon called Ellerman bombs on the surface of the Sun. The image was shared by Spaceweather.com and sparked quite an interest in what it means as the solar cycle is approaching its peak.

The Sun goes through an 11-year cycle where its magnetic poles flip, and the north pole becomes the south pole and vice versa. Solar scientists have been observing the solar surface for decades to understand how this process takes place and impacts us.

As the activity of the Sun increases, scientists have observed an increase in the number of sunspots on its surface. These are caused by the concentration of magnetic fields in certain areas, which temporarily halt the convection process on the Sun. The temperature at the location drops significantly, making it appear darker and hence the sunspot.

Solar flares and coronal mass ejections

Solar scientists keenly look at sunspots since they can spontaneously erupt to send out large plumes of solar particles, called coronal mass ejections (CMEs), or high amounts of solar radiation, called solar flares.

When directed toward Earth, these events interact with the upper layers of the atmosphere and result in some beautiful auroras in the night sky. Although the Earth's atmosphere protects the inhabitants from these solar expulsions, spacecraft and astronauts do not enjoy the same protections and must be shielded from them.

Unfortunately, even after years of work, scientists cannot truly predict when these events will occur, and more resources have been dedicated to understanding these phenomena in greater detail.

Ellerman Bombs

One such phenomenon is the Ellerman bombs, named after physicist Ferdinand Ellerman who spotted them over a century ago, in 1917. The phenomenon is called so because it consists of small magnetic explosions about a millionth in the intensity of a solar flare.

As Spaceweather.com points out, tiny is a relative term here since each Ellerman bomb event releases about 1026 ergs of energy, equivalent to 100,000 atomic bombs used in the World War II era.

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These explosions usually occur because of the magnetic complexity undergoing on the Sun as its polarity is being reshaped. As the poles move to occupy their opposite positions, the solar matter of opposite polarities bump into each other, reconnect and lead to these explosions.

Weiller captured these Ellerman bombs as they were occurring on sunspots AR3140 and AR3141. The image was captured during a 30-second exposure, and scientists are guessing that a full-fledged solar flare might be coming soon.

A magnetic filament, also observed above sunspots, erupted on Sunday, and the subsequent CME is expected to pass close to Earth on November 18. The limited interaction of the CME and the Earth's atmosphere is also expected to cause a minor geomagnetic storm, which could see some radio blackouts or minute power surges in electrical grids. A light show of beautiful auroras over the Arctic circle can also be expected.

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