Video from a NASA telescope shows part of the sun breaking off and swirling around its north pole.
A solar physicist called the polar vortex a “scientific curiosity” and hasn’t seen anything like it.
More plasma is building up to liftoff at the sun’s north pole, which is a once-a-decade event.
A giant filament of plasma appears to have broken away from the sun and swirled around its north pole in a tornado-like vortex.
NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory captured the mysterious event on February 2.
“Talk about Polar Vortex,” space-weather forecaster Tamitha Skov said on Twitter.
She added that the telescope footage appeared to show a solar prominence — a large, bright filament extending out from the sun, but anchored to the solar surface. In this case, though, it looks like part of the filament broke away and began whipping itself in a circle around our star’s north pole.
“It’s the first time I have seen something like it,” Scott McIntosh, a solar physicist and deputy director of the National Center for Atmospheric Research, told Insider in an email. That doesn’t necessarily mean it’s never happened before, he added.
The filament that appeared to break off the solar surface and turn into a vortex is huge. This NASA image putting Earth next to a solar prominence should give you an idea of the scale:
Though he hasn’t seen the vortex before, McIntosh told Space.com that a solar prominence appears in the same spot — at 55 degrees latitude — during every 11-year solar cycle. It’s probably related to the sun’s magnetic field reversing every solar cycle, but the exact mechanism causing it is a mystery.
The vortex it seemed to create last week is equally mysterious.
“Its appearance is more cool than baffling,” McIntosh said. “Our initial observation was more of a gee whizz kind of thing.”
More extreme activity is building on the sun’s north pole
On Friday morning, more plasma appeared to be swirling at the solar north pole.
Cool plasma building at the surface of the sun’s pole appears to be getting ready to lift off, or erupt, into space. That happens about once per decade, McIntosh said.
This activity is “maybe more typical and a lot less swirly than the event we saw last week,” he added.
Since all these eruptions are happening at the sun’s north pole, none of them are pointed at Earth, so they don’t have the disruptive effects to GPS and radio that some solar explosions can cause.
“These are not events disruptive to the Earth at all, just a real scientific curiosity about what’s happening at the poles,” he said.
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