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What is a Solar Prominence?

By Klaus Strasser
Updated May 17, 2024
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Solar prominence typically refers to the astronomical phenomenon of dense ionized clouds of gas, otherwise known as plasma, which emerge from the sun and are held in place by its magnetic field. These clouds are called incandescent, because they come from the sun. Solar prominence generally looks like a loop that protrudes from the sun. If you can imagine the sun as a face, it resembles strands of hair extending out from the head.

It is generally believed by scientists that solar prominences are a part of the solar activity cycle of the sun. This solar activity cycle describes the periodic variations in characteristics that are observable on the sun or in its atmosphere. Solar prominence is thought to arise from the manipulations of the magnetic field caused by the magnetization of hot gasses constituting the sun, in concert with its rotational movement, which has an effect on the production of heat. These gases are suspended above the photosphere of the sun and can extend to its corona.

There are two main classifications of solar prominences: active and quiescent. Quiescent prominences usually are the result of a slow process and last longer, sometimes observable for months at a time. Active prominences are sudden eruptions that can last from a few hours to a few days.

A typical solar prominence can cover thousands of miles. The largest ever observed solar prominence occurred in 1967, as documented by the Solar and Heliographic Observatory (SOHO). This solar prominence was recorded as extending to a length of 217,500 miles (about 350,000 kilometers).

People often confuse solar prominences with solar flares. While they are similar, the term solar flare usually refers to a temporary brightening of the sun itself. However, solar flares may be able to produce a solar prominence according to the releases of energy and plasma that may become caught in the magnetic fields of the sun.

During a total eclipse of the sun, solar prominences may become visible. They can also be observed through the utilization of a spectroscope. The first astronomer to have observed solar prominence is believed to have been the Swedish scientist Birger Vasseinus in 1733. The descriptions in his records indicate that the phenomenon he saw was most likely an instance of solar prominence.

Scientists have also observed solar prominence in phenomenon other than the sun in the Milky Way. Evidence has been demonstrated that other stars also exhibit prominences. These stellar prominences have been observed to be much larger than the solar prominences created by the sun.

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