The UK-built Solar Orbiter has recorded its first video showing powerful eruptions from the Sun.


These events, known as coronal mass ejections (CMEs), are eruptions near the Sun’s surface that blast out into the Solar System.

“Coronal mass ejections can cause geomagnetic storms on Earth, which can disrupt power grids and the satellites we rely on for things like navigation and telephone communications," said Dr Chris Castelli, director of programmes at the UK Space Agency.

“Tracking their progress will provide new insight into how the Sun affects space weather and its impact on our daily lives.

“UK specialists are playing a leading role in one of the most important space science missions of our generation through our membership of the European Space Agency.”

CMEs can even be dangerous for unprotected astronauts on spacewalks.

The video released on Monday came just a few days after a close perihelion pass of the Sun on 10 February, which took the spacecraft within half the distance between Earth and the Sun. The footage shows the CME as captured by Solar Orbiter's Extreme Ultraviolet Imager instrument, then by the Metis coronagraph, and finally by Solar Orbiter’s Heliospheric Imager (SoloHI).

When the footage was captured, the spacecraft was behind the Sun as viewed from Earth, resulting in very low data transfer rates.

It has taken more than three months for the data to be downloaded and analysed.

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Could a solar storm take down the internet?

Billions of tonnes of magnetised plasma are periodically ejected into space by the Sun’s churning convection currents in the upper layers of its atmosphere. These coronal mass ejections travel at speeds of up to 11,000,000 kilometres per hour, and the Sun can fire off as many as 20 per week, depending on where it is in its 11-year activity cycle.

Although CMEs are common, they are launched in a narrow arc, and the chances of a large one hitting the Earth are relatively low. We had a near miss in 2012, but the last big strike was in 1859, before society became reliant on electricity.

If a CME on a similar scale was to strike the Earth today, it could damage the electronics in orbiting satellites, disrupting navigation and communications systems, as well as the GPS time synchronisation that the internet relies on to function. It would also create a surge of electromagnetic radiation in the atmosphere, causing huge currents in our power grids which could burn out electrical transformers, leading to length outages.

Without power, society itself would grind to a halt – not just the internet. But this is a worst-case scenario. Scientists monitoring the Sun would be able to give us a couple of days’ warning of a dangerous CME, and in that time, vulnerable satellites could be shut down temporarily, and power grids reconfigured, in order to limit the disruption.

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Sara RigbyOnline staff writer, BBC Science Focus

Sara is the online staff writer at BBC Science Focus. She has an MPhys in mathematical physics and loves all things space, dinosaurs and dogs.