A giant eruption covered ‘over half the sun,’ then crashed into Earth nearly 12 hours earlier than forecast

In the vast expanse of our solar system, there exists a cosmic spectacle, an event of such magnitude and ferocity that it defies the boundaries of earthly imagination. A giant explosion, a celestial tantrum, lashed out from the very heart of the sun, casting a cascade of solar material hurtling towards our pale blue dot, Earth. But this was no ordinary eruption; it was a celestial tempest, a storm of solar magnitude. (

Photo credit: A filament of plasma forms on the sun (visible in the upper-right center of the sun’s disc) then bursts into space, on Saturday. Dean Pesnell/NASA

It all began with a mesmerizing display, a giant loop of plasma, arcing from the sun’s surface, a snake-like filament that stretched further and further, as if testing the limits of space itself. ( Then, in a moment of cosmic fury, it accelerated, bursting forth into the void of the cosmos. It was a display of raw power and beauty, a dance of fire and light. Solar physicist Keith Strong, who has delved into the secrets of the cosmos with Lockheed Martin and NASA, could not contain his awe. He shared footage of this breathtaking spectacle, proclaiming it to be “THE BIGGEST ERUPTION I HAVE EVER SEEN!” As if that weren’t enough, he noted that it covered over half of the sun.

Photo credit: Northern Lights, also called aurora borealis, dance in the sky over Tromso, Norway. NTB/Rune Stoltz Bertinussen/Reuters

Indeed, NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory bore witness to this celestial drama, capturing it for posterity. In a time-lapse video, spanning several hours, we see the plasma arc gathering momentum, a crescendo of energy, culminating in a dazzling eruption from the sun’s center-right. ( This eruption, it turns out, occurred in the sun’s outer atmosphere, the corona, and it carries a name worthy of its grandeur – a coronal mass ejection (CME). These cosmic behemoths fling charged, super-hot plasma into the cosmos, and sometimes, like in the case of this CME, their path intersects with Earth.

Photo credit: An animation of the solar wind shows particles streaming from the sun towards Earth. NASA

As the world turned its eyes to the heavens, forecasters at the Space Weather Prediction Center (SWPC), a branch of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, issued a solemn prediction. This CME would trigger a geomagnetic storm, a powerful upheaval in our planet’s magnetic field. ( The potential consequences of such a storm are profound – it can disrupt radio communications, pull satellites from their celestial orbits, and in rare instances, plunge power grids into darkness. It is a reminder that the cosmic dance above our heads holds sway over our terrestrial affairs.

Photo credit: A coronal mass ejection, as seen from a NASA spacecraft. The sun itself is blocked for better visibility of the CME. NASA/STEREO/COR2

Yet, amidst the apprehension, there’s a silver lining in the celestial storm clouds. ( Solar storms, like the one initiated by this CME, bestow upon Earth a mesmerizing gift – the Northern Lights, or aurora borealis. These radiant displays, usually confined to the northernmost reaches of our planet, have, on occasion, graced the skies in the heart of the United States.

Photo credit: Two coronal holes are forming on the sun. NASA Solar Dynamics Observatory

The SWPC had made its calculations, and the world waited with bated breath. It was predicted that the CME, born of that colossal filament eruption, would reach our planet on a Monday evening, a cosmic rendezvous scheduled in the annals of space weather forecasting. But then, at approximately 9 a.m. Eastern Time, something extraordinary happened. ( NOAA sensors in space recorded a sudden, dramatic shift in Earth’s geomagnetic field. ( ( The CME, it seemed, had not adhered to the forecasted timeline. It had arrived nearly 12 hours earlier than anticipated.

In the world of space weather prediction, precision is paramount. To forecast the arrival time and intensity of solar storms, NOAA relies on a network of spacecraft, akin to buoys at sea, collecting data on the solar particles streaming toward Earth. Yet, in this crucial moment, we find ourselves at a disadvantage. “We only have a single viewpoint of the sun for the next year or so. It’s like playing tennis with one eye closed — we have poor depth perception,” laments Matt Owens, a professor of space physics at the University of Reading. The intricate nature of space weather and the limited number of space-based sensors create a complex puzzle, and making precise timing predictions becomes a formidable challenge.

The other aspect of this cosmic forecast is the storm’s strength upon arrival. Daniel Verscharen, an associate professor of space and climate physics at University College London, explains the intricate dance of magnetic fields in the plasma cloud. If these fields align in opposition to Earth’s magnetic field, the geomagnetic storm becomes potent. In this instance, the SWPC got it right – they predicted a moderate geomagnetic storm, classified as G2, with the potential for a strong G3 storm. As it played out, the storm achieved its G2 status, briefly peaking at G3 overnight.

Yet, this was no isolated cosmic event. It was part of a celestial crescendo, one act in a cosmic drama that featured 22 CMEs within a single week, with three of them directed toward our planet. ( As Owens succinctly puts it, “The sun’s been very active this last week.” Indeed, our sun has been rousing from its cosmic slumber, building toward a peak of activity, initially anticipated for 2025 but now looming closer to mid-2024. The consequence of this solar awakening is more frequent solar storms on a collision course with our world.

Furthermore, as the cosmic stage is set, another actor emerges – a coronal hole on the sun, churning out fast solar winds. On another day, the confluence of these cosmic factors could have unleashed a violent solar storm of epic proportions. ( But this time, the eruptions and coronal holes were “a bit too slow and a bit too spread out,” according to Owens. They converged, but not in a way that would cause immediate concern.

In the night skies, the heavens danced, putting on a show that spanned continents. The aurora borealis, a phenomenon that usually graces polar latitudes, ventured further south. ( Spectators marveled at the celestial spectacle in Montana, Missouri, Virginia, and even across the Atlantic in the United Kingdom. ( It was a celestial celebration, a reminder that amidst the grand cosmic drama, Earth holds its own allure. (

Yet, as we witness these cosmic theatrics, we also glimpse the fragility of our existence. The cosmos, with its capricious storms and celestial dances, reminds us that we are but passengers on a pale blue dot in a vast cosmic ocean. The dance of solar storms is a potent metaphor for our place in the universe – we are bound by the laws of nature, subject to its whims, and yet we persist, finding beauty and wonder in the celestial chaos.

In this cosmic ballet, we must remain vigilant, for while the stars above may seem distant and disconnected from our daily lives, their influence on Earth is profound. The need to comprehend, predict, and harness the forces of space weather is paramount. We may not control the cosmos, but we can strive to understand it, to protect our planet from its unpredictable tempests, and to marvel at its astonishing displays. (

As the solar storms ebb and (

Yael Wolfe

Writer, photographer, artist, and big, bad wolf. I’m a writer, photographer, and artist. I use my work to explore what it means to be a woman in this world.

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