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Sun dogs light up the sky

My friend Austin took this photograph last week, looking out his office window near the Metrodome in downtown Minneapolis. That flare in the distance isn't Photoshop. Nor is it the nuclear annihilation of St. Paul. Instead, it's a sun dog — an atmospheric phenomenon that happens when light from the Sun is refracted off of ice crystals in the air. The light gets bent as it passes through the crystals and we see the bright flash of a "false sun" to the side of the actual Sun. The same process can also form rings around the Sun. Whether you get a halo or a sun dog depends on which way the ice crystals are oriented in relation to you.

Coming tomorrow: Hot Sun-on-comet action

What happens when a solar storm collides with a comet? Back in 2007, a coronal mass ejection ripped the tail off of Comet Encke. (You can watch that happen in an awesome NASA gif.) Tomorrow, Comet ISON is due to fly closer to the Sun than Encke, during a much more active time in the solar cycle. Scientists are anticipating an awesome collision, like spectators at a demolition derby. Maggie 1

Time-lapse of a particularly intense aurora borealis display

Photographer Göran Strand created this stunning time-lapse video made from photographs of the aurora borealis as seen from Östersund, Sweden on March 17, 2013. The video consists of 2,464 images taken over four hours. The extreme intensity of the aurora borealis display resulted from a huge solar storm spurred by two solar flares that erupted on March 6.

Alan Friedman takes mind-blowing photos of the sun from home

Colossal has a gallery of Alan Friedman's stunning sun photography. (Here's Friedman's TEDx Talk from December).

[Alan Friedman] points a telescope skyward from his backyard in downtown Buffalo, directly into the light of the sun. Using special filters attached to his camera Friedman captures some of the most lovely details of the Sun’s roiling surface. The raw images are colorless and often blurry requiring numerous hours of coloring, adjusting and finessing to tease out the finest details, the results of which hardly resemble what I imagine the 10-million degree surface of Sun might look like. Instead Friedman’s photos appear almost calm and serene, perhaps an entire planet of fluffy clouds or cotton candy.

Alan Friedman’s Astonishing HD Photographs of the Sun Shot from his Own Backyard

Kids, wear your sunblock

A few days ago, I saw this photo on a friend's Facebook feed, accompanied by a caption claiming that it showed a truck driver who had exposed half his face to the sun for 30 years.

There wasn't any link and naturally, being Facebook, I assumed this was probably not an accurate description of what was going on in the photo and kind of just brushed it aside.

And then Mo Costandi posted the same photo on Twitter along with a link to its original source—The New England Journal of Medicine. Oh, s&*%.

The patient reported that he had driven a delivery truck for 28 years. Ultraviolet A (UVA) rays transmit through window glass, penetrating the epidermis and upper layers of dermis. Chronic UVA exposure can result in thickening of the epidermis and stratum corneum, as well as destruction of elastic fibers. This photoaging effect of UVA is contrasted with photocarcinogenesis. Although exposure to ultraviolet B (UVB) rays is linked to a higher rate of photocarcinogenesis, UVA has also been shown to induce substantial DNA mutations and direct toxicity, leading to the formation of skin cancer. The use of sun protection and topical retinoids and periodic monitoring for skin cancer were recommended for the patient.

Basically, this gentleman does not yet seem to have skin cancer. Instead, the skin on that side of his face had thickened (a sign that his skin cells aren't growing and sloughing off in a normal way). The elastic tissue on that side of the face had also started to degenerate, leaving deep wrinkles, as well as wide pores that became multiple blackheads. Also, small cysts had formed around the follicles of fine hairs on his face.

Read more about how exposure to UVA rays from the sun can cause skin damage and premature aging.

Read the full (very short) case report at the New England Journal of Medicine.

The beautiful surface of the Sun

Phil Plait linked to this amazing photo of the Sun on the Bad Astronomy blog today. It's incredible. Like nothing I've ever seen before. The photographer is Alan Friedman. Plait explains how Friedman got this look, which is a very nice reminder that space photography is seldom really about "point and click".

Alan uses an Hα filter, which cuts out almost all the light from the Sun except for a narrow slice of color emitted by warm hydrogen. This reduces the glare hugely, and reveals delicate structures in the Sun’s plasma. He then inverts the image, so bright things appear dark, and vice-versa. That’s an old astronomer’s trick that makes fainter things easier to see.

Like this close-up? Go to the Bad Astronomy blog to see Alan Friedman's photo of the full Sun. Your mind will be blown. I promise.

Solar Flare update: A Hot Mess

Click for more images.

Above, one of a number of images released by NASA today that show how a coronal mass ejection (or CME) from our Sun progressed on March 8, 11:38 PM EST to March 9, 12:53 AM EST. These were captured by the Solar Heliospheric Observatory (SOHO).

Snip from NASA:

The sun is obscured in this image, called a coronograph, so that the dim atmosphere -- or corona -- around the sun can be better seen. The white speckles on the image are “noise” from solar particles hitting the instrument. On March 8, 2012 at 10:53 PM EST it erupted with an M6.3 class flare, and about an hour later released a CME. In addition to today's rising geomagnetic storm conditions, active region 1429 that has so far produced two X class flares, and numerous M-class flares continues to crackle. NASA's Space Weather Center models measure the CME traveling at speeds of over 700 miles per second. The CME should reach Earth's magnetosphere, the protective envelope of magnetic fields around the planet, early in the morning of March 11.

So, there you have it. Sometime in the AM on Sunday, you and everyone you love and all that is beautiful in the world will crackle in flames and ash, then end in a fiery death. (Just kidding!)

Bill Harwood, space consultant for CBS News (one of the truly great science reporters of our time), explains what it all means:

The sun goes through an 11-year cycle, and solar flares, as its tending toward maximum, which the sun is doing right now, are not unusual. These aren’t the biggest flares they’ve ever seen, but they are the most energetic in the last five years or so. There probably will be some good auroral displays, the northern and southern lights, if you will. There could be some disruptions. There could also be some impact on global positioning system readings.

And a special note for communications DIYers: For more on how the solar event affects amateur ("ham") radio operations, ARRL has this update today. If you're into that sort of thing, you may want to follow the @solarham account on Twitter, too.

Photo taken by a beer can

This gorgeous photo of a statue in England called The Angel of the North was taken by Justin Quinnell, over the course of three months, using a pinhole camera made out of a beer can. Yes, the parabola is the path of the Sun, with the highest peak being June 21. New Scientist has more information on how Quinnell made this photo. (Via Roger Highfield)

How big are solar flares, really?

Mmmmmmm, delicious context. When the news says "massive," this is what they mean.

Thanks to Scott Stevenson for making this and sending it my way!

Is the sun hard, or squishy? Reddit knows.

The collective genius of Reddit tackles a great science question from a toddler: Is the Sun hard or squishy? (Via Arria Belli)