While the world was popping off its collective fireworks to see in the New Year, not to be left out, the sun generated its own firework display.

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During four hours on New Year’s Eve (Dec 31), NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory (SDO) watched a flare erupt at the limb of our nearest star that sent a tower of superheated plasma high into the corona (the sun’s atmosphere).

The intense magnetic field looping through the solar photosphere then funneled the accelerated plasma in a wonderfully complex and elegant formation. It turns out that to do a “firework right” you really need a warped magnetic field.

The beauty of the flare’s ballet-like eruption wasn’t lost on mission mascot Camilla Corona SDO, NASA’s sun-loving little rubber yellow chicken:

It’s a Solar Ballet – beautiful view of an eruption on today’s Sun @

This eruption came at the perfect time, heralding the beginning of a very big year for our nearest star. The sun is rapidly approaching “solar maximum” — the most active phase of the sun’s 11-year solar cycle. Solar physicists have watched the sun’s activity intensify and predict that Solar Cycle 24 will see its most intense period of flares, coronal mass ejections (CMEs) and sunspots over the next 12 months.

After that, the sun’s magnetic field will become less stressed and the frequency of these solar phenomena will dip into “solar minimum” — and, over the next 11 years, the cycle will begin all over again.

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Interestingly, although we’ve seen some dramatic solar explosions through 2012, this cycle is less intense than previous cycles, so this year’s solar maximum will likely be a little more subdued than usual. But there’s still some energy left for a little more excitement.

Watch the New Year’s Eve flare in this awesome SDO video:

Image: Screenshots of the Dec. 31 flare. Credit: NASA/SDO h/t @Camilla_SDO