What in the heck just happened to the sun?
In the early hours of Tuesday morning, our nearest star put on a show that won't be forgotten for a long, long time. Under the ever-watchful eyes of an armada of solar observatories, the sun unleashed an M2-class solar flare.
Keep in mind that an M2 flare, although powerful, is still only classed as a "medium" explosion. But there was nothing medium about this event.
Erupting from an active region of sunspots (sunspot complex 1226-1227) - where highly stressed and concentrated magnetic fields are forced through the solar surface (the "photosphere"), pushing the hot plasma aside, exposing the cooler plasma below the surface - the flare ejected a huge coronal mass ejection (CME).
A surprisingly large quantity of plasma didn't escape the gravitational pull of the sun, however, and was dragged back down as a vast cloud of cooler plasma, resembling the foaming, bubbly mess after popping a champagne cork.
The veil of darker plasma (it appears darker as it's cooler - at a temperature of around 80,000 K, compared with the surrounding million degree coronal plasma) expanded and appeared to cover half the sun's disk before being funneled along the powerful magnetic field lines, raining back into the photosphere. There even appeared to be sparks of sudden plasma heating as the huge blobs of gas impacted the dense plasma at the surface.