NASA Rendered a Massive Solar Eruption in 3D Using Three Satellites

A pair of astrophysicists have put together the most complete rendering of solar activity shock waves.
Shelby Rogers
Image from a massive solar flare on August 31, 2012.NASA Goddard Space Flight Center/Flickr

Solar storms are some of the most captivating events within our galaxy, and researchers invest a lot of time in documenting just how these events affect Earth. NASA recently developed a new imaging model the simulates just how eruptions and other coronal mass ejections (CMEs) could impact our lives. 

NASA Rendered a Massive Solar Eruption in 3D Using Three Satellites
NASA used data from three separate satellites in order to develop these shock-wave renderings. Source: NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center

Thanks to partnerships with several solar observatories, scientists could develop models to see just how shocks associated with CMEs (often solar flares) could resonate throughout our solar system. The resulting images came from combining data from three NASA satellites in order to produce the most extensive and robust mapping of CME activity to date. 

It's important to note that CMEs and solar flares are not the same. CMEs happen when huge gas bubbles threaded with magnetic field lines get ejected from the Sun for hours. While it's not uncommon for solar flares to accompany that activity, most CMEs never have solar flare. 

However, CMEs and solar flares share an understanding that they can both impact earth. As the European Space Agency noted, "large geomagnetic storms have, among other things, caused electrical power outages and damaged communications satellites. The energetic particles driven along by CMEs can be damaging to both electronic equipment and astronauts or passengers in high-flying aircraft."

Conversely, solar flares directly affect radio communications on Earth in addition to releasing magnetic particles into space itself. 

The researchers' 3-D imaging project give the world a better understanding of CMEs and possibly solar flares. And in order to give a global understanding of CMEs, researchers had to gather information from around the globe. 

The team was comprised of solar physicist Ryun-Young Kwon from George Mason University in Virginia and Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Lab (APL) astrophysicist Angelos Vourlidas. The two compiled observations from three distinct spacecraft.

They used the ESA/NASA Solar and Heliospheric Observatory (SOHO) and both of NASA's Solar Terrestrial Relations Observatory (STEREO) satellites. They then used data from two prominent CME eruptions -- one from March 2011 and the other in February 2014. 


Separately, the spacecraft did not have enough information to allow the researchers to make a model of the shocks. However, three "eyes" on the same eruptions gave them a much better understanding and 'view' of the events. They then used basic models to recreate it in a 3-D view. 

Until this new study, scientists could only theorize what happened during a CME and its 'ripple.' The most recent research now confirms a long-held theory that there's a strong shock near the CME nose and a weaker shock toward the sides, NASA's Lina Tan explained. 

As those shocks move past the Sun, the scientists could reconstruct the path of the shock through space. By being able to analyze these two most recent shocks, researchers can now have a better understanding of the speed and strength of these energized particles. And with that knowledge comes even better safety for astronauts and spacecraft that could be impacted by the shocks.