A NASA time-lapse shows a decade of the sun's solar flares and shifting magnetic energy
- A mesmerising time-lapse video from NASA chronicles the sun's activity over the last decade.
- Each second in the video represents a year of the sun's life, making it look like a rotating disco ball.
- Bright flashes are eruptions, while dark patches are sunspots.
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A NASA spacecraft perched in Earth's orbit has been monitoring the sun for the last decade. That's one year shy of a full solar cycle - the time it takes for the sun's north and south poles to flip.
Between June 2, 2010 and June 1, 2020, NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory captured 425 million high-resolution images of our star. That's about one snapshot every 0.75 seconds, on average. The team recently compiled some of the footage into a mesmerising, hour-long video of the sun in motion.
Every second in the video represents a day in the sun's life.
The time-lapse makes the sun look like a rotating disco ball: brilliant in places, shadowy in others.
That's because its hot gases are constantly moving. During an 11-year solar cycle, the sun's magnetic fields can become tangled and stretched. This creates sunspots: darker, cooler patches on the sun's surface that form when magnetic fields are particularly strong.
In October 2014, NASA recorded the largest sunspot in nearly a quarter-century - a patch about the size of Jupiter. The sunspot set off multiple explosions known as solar flares, which appear as bright flashes in the video. That same month, light and dark patterns on the sun's surface bore a striking resemblance to a Jack-o-Lantern just in time for Halloween.
The sun's magnetic energy reached a peak - known as a solar maximum - in 2014. During that time, explosions and flares on the sun's surface were so violent, they could be seen as light from the Earth's surface. Solar maxima can also trigger power outages and electricity shortages.
The sun's magnetic activity has declined since then, but NASA observers still managed to capture some noteworthy events, like Mercury passing in front of the sun in November 2019. That event won't happen again until 2032.
A few snapshots, however, are missing. The video is peppered by the occasional dark frame, when either the Earth or moon passed between the sun and NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory. In 2016, a technical issue also caused the camera to go offline for about a week.
But for the most part, the video represents all of the sun's waxing and waning activity over the last decade.
Scientists are now speculating about whether the sun may have entered its next solar cycle. NASA observers captured a distinct solar flare on May 29 - the largest since October 2017. That could be a sign that the sun's activity has started to ramp up again, but it may take another six months or year to know for sure.
In the meantime, NASA will have it on camera.
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