The Day the Sun Exploded

The Day the Sun Exploded

Posted by Janice Stillman on 27th Aug 2019

What happens to Earth when the Sun “explodes”? Read more stories like this from our astronomy editor, Bob Berman, when you have The Old Farmer’s Almanac at your side.
Dear Solar Spectator,

The Old Farmer’s Almanac’s astronomy editor, Bob Berman, has been interested in what happens on Earth when the Sun “explodes.” Solar flares, violent solar phenomena that make even modern solar researchers nervous, were first witnessed in 1859 by a scientific community that was puzzled and fascinated by sunspots—dark marks on the solar surface that came and went in roughly 11-year cycles.

None of these experts had any idea what they were, how they moved across the Sun, or whether they affected Earth. One of them, 33-year-old British astronomer Richard Carrington, was obsessed by solar activity. Through his 4-inch refracting telescope, he observed the spots on every clear day.

The days leading into September 1859 had seen unusually intense solar storms, and scientists were abuzz. Suddenly, at 11:18 a.m. on September 1, Carrington was rewarded for his diligence: To his amazement, a large sunspot cluster near the top of the Sun grew strangely dazzling. Despite a protective eye filter, he could barely watch. The flare became so luminous that it doubled the brightness of the Sun. He knew that this was no optical illusion, and his observation was soon confirmed by another British observer, Richard Hodgson.

As Carrington and Hodgson watched the flare, instruments at England’s King’s Observatory recorded a disturbance in Earth’s magnetic field. Would this be the long-sought evidence that events on the Sun affect our planet?
The answer arrived that night.

Brilliant auroras in deep reds (not the ordinary green hues) lit up the skies around the globe, even over regions as far south as the Caribbean. These twisted displays alarmed millions of people who had never seen them or imagined that the heavens could possibly contort in this way. So bright were these illuminations over the U.S. West that some people assumed that the day had dawned—so they got up and made breakfast. In New York City, gawkers crowded rooftops and sidewalks.

The light shows were breathtaking, but other effects were literally shocking.

In fact, this was one of the worst recorded solar storms in history. If you’re fascinated by stories like this and want more astronomy in your life—plus a bundle of BONUSES—sign up forThe Old Farmer’s Almanac Best Value Club Charter Membership today! You’ll get all of this and more in The 2020 Old Farmer’s Almanac, which comes with your membership.
About That "Exploding" Sun
Do we need to worry about these massive explosions on the Sun? Thanks to modern astronomy, we can see any threats as they’re happening, which offers the potential to issue warnings. Our “Solar Sentries” are specialized satellites that keep us updated on solar activity. The Solar TErrestrial RElations Observatory (STEREO) can even peer behind the Sun to see coming storms.

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Janice Stillman
Editor, The Old Farmer’s Almanac

P.S. You should act today to claim your Charter Membership in The Old Farmer’s Almanac Best Value Club—including your 2020 issue of the Almanac …and your bonuses, too!

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