Gigantic vortex on the sun: what it means for Earth

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You don’t see this every day: an enormous “polar vortex” formed on the Sun in early February. While solar flares are a regular occurrence, such detached vortices are rather rare.

For the Earth, however, such polar vortices have no effect. Since the Sun’s north pole faces away from Earth, no solar storms or restrictions on GPS or radio are expected.

Gigantic solar arcs
So-called prominences occur relatively often on our home star. The charged particle streams can be observed at the Sun’s edge as dull glowing arcs. These are often several 100,000 kilometres long and up to 40,000 kilometres high.

For comparison, the Earth has a diameter of just under 13,000 kilometres. During a total solar eclipse, such prominences can be observed with the naked eye.

On February 2, however, such a prominence detached from the Sun and formed a vortex around the Sun’s north pole. Such events are rarer and occur only about every 11 years, according to Space.com.

Researchers don’t know why such vortices form because they don’t have suitable images of the Sun’s polar regions. However, that is expected to change soon: In February 2025, ESA’s Solar Orbiter spacecraft will provide the first bird’s-eye images of the Sun’s poles.

No part of the Sun has broken off
However, the fact that part of the Sun has broken off, as some media claim, is not true. The lurid statement goes back to a tweet of the researcher Tamitha Skov, who speaks of a part of the prominence detaching from the Sun.

In her blog, however, she gives the all-clear. That the vortex is being portrayed as if a piece of the Sun is breaking off is “media hype,” she said. According to the space weather expert, the events are normal and just a “part of the solar ballet.”

Why aren’t we using James Webb?
The James Webb Space Telescope also can’t give us any insights regarding the Sun. That’s because it is permanently pointed away from the Sun to catch the faint light of distant stars and galaxies.

In addition, the telescope is equipped with a complex solar protection system that blocks the Sun’s rays from the optical devices. These would be destroyed if the telescope were pointed at the Sun.

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