Unprecedented solar eruption filmed by NASA

Solar observatory views coronal mass ejection measuring five Earths wide, 7 1/2 Earths tall, and traveling 1.5 million mph; took educated guesses, luck to get

An unprecedented solar eruption captured by IRIS, a solar observatory. Photo courtesy of NASA Goddard Space Flight Center

An unprecedented solar eruption captured by IRIS, a solar observatory. Photo courtesy of NASA Goddard Space Flight Center

A gigantic solar eruption, the likes of which has never been seen before, was captured in video from NASA's Interface Region Imaging Spectrograph, otherwise known as IRIS, a solar observatory that travels around Earth in a polar orbit.

The coronal mass ejection (CME) measured approximately five Earths wide and about 7 1/2 Earths tall, sending a stream of charged particles and hot plasma away from the sun at up to 1.5 million mph.

The solar eruption occurred on May 9, but video released by NASA Goddard Space Flight Center last week is just starting to gain online attention:

NASA Goddard Space Flight Center explained further:

IRIS must commit to pointing at certain areas of the sun at least a day in advance, so catching a CME in the act involves some educated guesses and a little bit of luck.

"We focus in on active regions to try to see a flare or a CME," said Bart De Pontieu, the IRIS science lead at Lockheed Martin Solar & Astrophysics Laboratory in Palo Alto, California. "And then we wait and hope that we'll catch something. This is the first clear CME for IRIS so the team is very excited."

The IRIS imagery focuses in on material of 30,000 Kelvin at the base, or foot points, of the CME. The line moving across the middle of the movie is the entrance slit for IRIS's spectrograph, an instrument that can split light into its many wavelengths--a technique that ultimately allows scientists to measure temperature, velocity and density of the solar material behind the slit.

Space.com explained that coronal mass ejections occur when the sun's twisting magnetic field lines become so warped that they snap and break like an over-stretched rubber band. They occur as many as five times on a given day, "but IRIS can only peer at 1 percent of the sun at a time, meaning its chances of catching a CME are relatively low."

The IRIS solar observatory was launched into space on June 27, 2013 as part of a $120 million mission.

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IRIS, a solar observatory orbiting Earth, captured the solar eruption. Animation photo courtesy of NASA Goddard Space Flight Center/Conceptual Image Lab