But what does it look like Scrub Daddy sponge setting fire might not be as cute as it looks. For us here on Earth, the sun emoji could produce a beautiful aurora watching — or it could signal trouble for the planet’s telecommunications systems.
The sun is, in essence, “the largest nuclear reactor in our solar system,” said Brian Keating, professor of physics at the University of California, San Diego. There’s a flurry of action happening every second in the huge, spinning, glowing ball of hot gas – from the conversion of hydrogen to helium, which releases the same amount of heat as several nuclear bombs, to electrical storms and sun tremors.
Some of that solar activity was photographed by NASA’s satellite on Wednesday, Keating told The Washington Post.
In the image, the trio of patches that make up the “face” – which cannot be seen with human eyes because they are in the ultraviolet spectrum – are what are known as coronal holes, or slightly cooler sections of the sun’s outer layer, which typically has a temperature of around 10,000 degrees Fahrenheit.
“We’re talking a few hundred degrees, so it’s not like a ski resort,” Keating said. “But because they’re so dark and because we’re looking at them in ultraviolet light, which the naked eye can’t see, the [NASA satellite] sees them as black holes.
Coronal holes are not only interesting shapes moving around the surface of the sun. These are areas of high magnetic field activity that regularly send solar wind — or a stream of protons, electrons, and other particles — out into the universe.
“More than a smiley face, his eyes look like bright laser beams sending out particles that can cause serious atmospheric disturbances on Earth,” Keating said.
When the particles, which carry an electric charge, hit the planet in small doses, colorful aurora could follow, bringing bright displays caused by gases in the atmosphere interacting with energy shoots from the sun. Problems arise if huge numbers of tiny particles hit Earth, Keating said. Instead of being sucked into the earth’s magnetic field, they could be picked up by radio antennas and disrupt radio, television and other communication channels. A severe solar storm could even damage power grids and cause blackouts, Keating added.
Whereas images of a smiling sun have already been captured – for example, in 2013 after “Ate a Comet” or in 2014 when NASA dubbed it a “Pumpkin Sun”– the worst-case scenario described by Keating has not happened for almost two centuries. The last intense geomagnetic storm to affect the Earth so much was the 1859 Carrington Eventwhich caused fires in several telegraph stations as auroras appeared in tropical regions.
A massive event like this is long overdue, he said.
“Scientists expect this to happen on average, with a probability of a few percent, every year, and we’ve just been dodging all these magnetic bullets for so long,” Keating said. “So it could be really scary, and the consequences could be much more dramatic, especially in our current tech-dependent society.”
Solar particles from the latest smile event could reach Earth just in time for the most ghostly night of the year.
“There might be something on our way for Halloween night after all,” Keating said. “Pretty scary, but hopefully not too scary.”
National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Space Weather Prediction Center Posted a minor geomagnetic storm watch on Saturday, warning that conditions could change from “unstable” to “active”. Breakouts from the coronal holes are expected to continue through Wednesday.