NASA has recorded some incredible video of a coronal hole in the sun. The hole was so massive, in fact, that it was described as "monstrous" and seemed to paint almost half of the sun's visible surface black. The video was taken by NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory (SDO) from May 17-19, and it features the sun's upper hemisphere dominated by a gigantic coronal hole, which is visible as what appears to be a massive gaping hole in the sun.
A coronal hole on the sun is described by NASA as a "low density region of the sun's atmosphere." The sun's atmosphere is known to scientists as the "cornea," hence the term "coronal hole." The human eye is unable to see coronal holes, reports RT. However, the sun's coronal holes are visible in the ultraviolet light spectrum and can be recorded using certain cameras, telescopes, and other specialized scientific instruments. In the video below, NASA has colorized the images in purple, making them easier to appreciate with the naked eye.The cause of coronal holes on the sun is still a complete mystery to scientists, but it has been observed that they "correlate to areas on the sun where magnetic fields soar up and away, without looping back down to the surface, as they do elsewhere." Despite their mysterious nature, however, coronal holes are widely studied by science due to their impact on Earth and the space environment directly surrounding our planet. It is this area of space that human astronauts and much of our satellite and space exploration technology travels, and coronal holes on the sun cause notable changes to that space environment.
"Coronal holes are the source of a high-speed wind of solar particles that streams off the sun some three times faster than slower wind elsewhere."
Solar winds are responsible for the Aurora Borealis (or northern lights). Strong solar storms, triggered by either coronal holes or solar flares result in the beautiful northern lights, and the stronger the storm, the more vivid (and widespread) the colors and brightness of the northern lights become. The lights are a visual representation of the solar particles interacting with Earth's magnetosphere.
SDO was designed to help NASA scientist better understand both the sun and its influence on both Earth and the space surrounding it. SDO has been observing coronal holes and the sun itself for six years now. In that time, SDO has witnessed and recorded an array of solar features and coronal holes. As Express reports, it has also recorded a disturbing trend: the sun's coronal holes appear to be getting bigger.
In October of 2015, NASA released images recorded by SDO that showed a coronal hole in the same area of the sun as the coronal hole that was recorded from May 17-19. Last October's coronal hole was roughly the size of 50 Earths but still much smaller than May's coronal hole.
However, despite being much smaller, last October's coronal hole was believed to be one of the largest ever recorded on the sun.
This May's coronal hole covered almost half of the sun's visible disk and between 10 and 20 percent of the sun's actual surface area. Despite it's large, almost unprecedented size, NASA doesn't believe it to be a cause for concern, but rather a learning opportunity.
Conspiracy theorists are less convinced that the gigantic coronal hole is benign, rather asking if it could be a sign that the sun is disintegrating.While the recent coronal hole didn't appear to result in the disintegration of the sun, it did result in some minor solar storms, reports Solarham. In addition to causing Auroras, solar storms can also interfere with satellites (including GPS) and radio frequencies here on Earth. It is feared that very strong solar storms could do more damage, even potentially knocking out Earth's entire electrical grid. In 1859, the largest solar storm ever recorded hit Earth, reports National Geographic. Known as the "Carrington Event," it was the result of a massive solar flare, not a coronal hole on the sun. However, it was unprecedented in modern times and resulted in northern lights stretching as far south as Cuba and Hawaii. They were reportedly so bright and illuminated the night sky so much that people could read newspapers by the northern lights alone.
At the time, the Earth's electrical grid was in its infancy. However, telegraph operators reported sparks coming from their equipment, some so strong they started fires, due to the magnitude of the storm's geomagnetic disturbance.
If a Carrington-level solar storm were to happen today, either as the result of a solar flare or a coronal hole on the sun, the effects would be utterly devastating to the power grid and a civilization that has become dependent upon it. Not only would we lose our satellite technology and our space station, life on Earth would be forever changed.
"Imagine large cities without power for a week, a month, or a year. The losses could be $1 to $2 trillion, and the effects could be felt for years."
While this May's gigantic coronal hole appears to have been little more than a visual curiosity, the sun's behavior ultimately makes and/or breaks life on Earth.
[Photo by SDO/NASA/Getty Images]