NASA takes photo of ‘smiling’ sun. It’s not as cute as it looks.

NASA takes photo of ‘smiling’ sun. It’s not as cute as it looks.


It turns out that everyone who drew a sun with a smiley as a kid has been scientifically proven – somewhat – correct. Last week, NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory snapped a photo of the largest object in our solar system that looks like the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man from “Ghostbusters,” the baby-faced “Teletubbies” sun, or a jack-o’-lantern (if you’re not) ‘ again in the Halloween spirit).

But what does it look like? a Scrub Daddy sponge set on fire may not be as cute as it seems. For us here on Earth could produce the solar emoji a beautiful aurora sighting – or it could signal problems for the planet’s telecommunications systems.

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The sun is essentially “the largest nuclear reactor in our solar system,” said Brian Keating, a professor of physics at the University of California at San Diego. Every second, a wave of action takes place in the massive, spinning, glowing ball of hot gas—from the conversion of hydrogen into helium, which releases the same amount of heat as several atomic bombs, to electrical storms and solar quakes.

Some of that solar activity was photographed Wednesday by NASA’s satellite, Keating told The Washington Post.

In the image, the trio of spots that make up the “face” — which can’t be seen with human eyes because they’re in the ultraviolet spectrum — are so-called coronal holes, or slightly cooler parts of the sun’s outer layer, which are usually a temperature of about 10,000 degrees Fahrenheit.

“We’re talking a few hundred degrees, so it’s not like some ski resort,” Keating said. “But because they are so dark and because we look at them in ultraviolet radiation, which the naked eye can’t see, [NASA satellite] sees them as dark holes.”

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The coronal holes are not alone interesting shapes moving around the sun’s surface. They are regions of high magnetic field activity that steadily send solar wind — or a stream of protons, electrons and other particles — out into the universe.

“More than a smiley face, his eyes are like shiny laser beams that emit particles that can cause serious disturbances to Earth’s atmosphere,” Keating said.

When the particles, which carry electrical charge, enter the planet in small doses, colorful auroras could follow, with brilliant displays caused by the gases of the atmosphere interacting with the sun’s pent-up shoots of energy. The problems come when a huge number of the tiny particles hit the Earth, Keating said. Instead of being sucked into the Earth’s magnetic field, they can be picked up by radio antennas and disrupt radio, television and other communication channels. A severe solar storm can even damage electrical grids and cause power outages, Keating added.

NASA’s Parker Solar Probe flew through the sun’s upper atmosphere on Dec. 14, sampling particles and magnetic fields there. (Video: NASA Goddard)

While pictures of a smiling sun have been taken before – for example in 2013 after “eaten a comet” or in 2014 when NASA called it one “Pumpkin Sun”— the worst-case scenario Keating described hasn’t happened in nearly two centuries. The last intense geomagnetic storm to affect Earth so much was the 1859 Carrington Eventthat set fires at several telegraph stations as auroras popped up in tropical areas.

Such a large-scale event should have happened long ago, he said.

“Scientists expect that on average, with a probability of a few percent, this will happen every year, and we’ve been dodging all those magnetic bullets for so long,” Keating said. “So it can be very scary, and the consequences can be much more dramatic, especially in our technology-dependent society today.”

The sun’s particles from the last smile could reach Earth just in time for the spookiest night of the year.

“There could be something on our way for Halloween night after all,” Keating said. “Pretty creepy, but hopefully not too creepy.”

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Space Weather Forecast Center issued a minor geomagnetic storm that warned on Saturday that conditions could change from “restless” to “active.” The coronal hole flare-ups are expected to continue through Wednesday.

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