Here's what the Sun looks like up close and in motion. James Tyrwhitt-Drake assembled more than 17,000 images taken by NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory to create this beautiful time lapse video of the sun between October 14 and October 30.
Among other things, itshows AR 2192, the largest sunspot recorded since 1990 — and a source of several spectacular solar flares in the last two weeks of October. (Look for the bright patch that starts on the far right and slowly moves leftward as the sun rotates.)
AR 2192 is the 33rd biggest sunspot seen on the Sun since observations began back in 1874. It's ten times as wide as Earth and about the size of Jupiter:
So where did it come from? The Sun is currently near the solar maximum of its 11-year cycle, when the star's magnetic field lines become particularly distorted. Those distortions inhibit convection in some areas, preventing energy from reaching the surface and creating sunspots that are a bit cooler than the surrounding region. (That's why they look visibly darker.)
Still, it's unclear why some sunspots turn out to be as gigantic as AR 2192. "The question of why it comes up as one spot instead of two or more is really still unknown, a mystery," said NASA's C. Alex Young in an interview with Space.com.
Whatever the cause, AR 2192 has certainly been active. Between October 14 and October 30, it fired off six large X-class solar flares and four smaller M-class flares — big bursts of energy. What's interesting here is that normally such flares are followed by coronal mass ejections, in which the Sun essentially shoots out part of its atmosphere in clouds of fast-moving charged particles. But that hasn't happened with AR 2192.
That's good news for us. If a coronal mass ejection hits Earth's magnetic field, it can trigger large geomagnetic storms that can mess with GPS satellites and even knock out power grids. That happened back in 1989, when a solar storm frazzled Quebec's power grid for several hours. And experts have warned that if a truly massive storm ever hit us, it could potentially leave millions of people without power — possibly for months.
AR 2192 has now rotated onto the other side of the Sun as of early November, and it's unclear if it will still be around when that part of the star rotates back to face us again. So, for now, enjoy the video.
(Many thanks to Jason Kottke for pointing out the video.)
Further reading: Here's an in-depth look at what would happen if a truly massive solar storm ever hit Earth.