Space & Innovation

There's Not REALLY A Hole In The Sun, But What Is It?

Scientists recently observed coronal holes in the sun. Here's what they are and how they could affect you.

If you're susceptible to alarmist viral video posts, you may have noticed a strange bit of footage making the rounds in recent weeks. It appears to show a hole in the sun. That can't be good, right?

Right. But only if you're playing Pokémon Go. Ian O'Neill has the details in today's DNews dispatch.

The video in question was recorded by NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory, or SDO, and it shows the sun's corona -- the superheated solar atmosphere that surrounds our species' favorite star. The images reveal a massive dark patch that looks like a hole in the sun.

To get a grip on what it really is, we need to know a bit more about the corona itself. The solar corona is a highly dynamic region created by arcs of magnetism that erupt from the sun's interior. Those magnetic arcs trap ionized gases -- or plasma -- which are heated to insane temperatures.

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So long as everything is trapped in a closed coronal loop, the superheated plasma shines brightly in the extreme ultraviolet wavelengths monitored by those SDO cameras. That's what we "see" when we squint real hard, optically speaking. However, sometimes those magnetic field lines are not closed. Instead, they shoot out past the corona and into the solar system.

It's no problem, really. The sun has been doing this for a long time. The trouble happens when this solar wind rotates around and sends streams of high speed plasma in Earth's direction. These high intensity streams boost the radiation environment surrounding our planet. In extreme cases, they can trigger geomagnetic fluctuations that light up the auroras, mess with power grids and interrupt the functions of communication satellites.

That's where the Pokémon Go business comes in. Solar flares and coronal ejections can knock out GPS service, disrupting navigation systems and weirdly popular augmented reality gaming trends. Thanks to particular optical characteristics of the machines we use to look at the sun, these solar gusts appear as holes in the corona.

That's all there is to it. This new hole in the sun is simply the most recent of several gazillion, and it's not even a hole, really -- just an optical effect. As our stalwart colleague Tracy Staedter points out, Pokémon Go itself is surely the scarier phenomenon.

-- Glenn McDonald

Learn More:

NASA: Understanding The Magnetic Sun

NOAA: Coronal Holes

NOAA: Solar Flares