Most people think of outer space as just a big empty place, but there's a lot of activity going on above our heads. And some of that activity affects us here on Earth, such as solar flares, which if powerful enough, can disrupt radio communication, damage satellites, and even pose a danger to atronauts on the International Space Station.
So here are two "spacey" events happening currently:
SOLAR ACTIVITY: Things are heating up on the sun. The growth of sunspot group 865 continues; it now stretches more than 10 Earth diameters from end to end. The spot has a twisted and possibly unstable magnetic field that harbors energy for M-class solar flares.
Meanwhile, flame-shaped prominences are dancing around the sun's limb, as shown in this six-hour movie recorded by amateur astronomer Andrew Chatman of Pittsford, New York:
Although they look like flames, prominences are not fire. They are enormous clouds of gas held aloft by solar magnetic force fields. The best way to see them is through H-alpha telescopes tuned to the red glow of solar hydrogen.
In 1995, Comet 73P/Schwassmann-Wachmann 3 did something unexpected: it fell apart.
For no apparent reason, the comet's nucleus split into at least three"mini-comets" flying single file through space. Astronomers watched with interest, but the view was blurry even through large telescopes. The comet was a hundred and fifty million miles away.
We're about to get a much closer look. In May 2006 the fragments are going to fly past Earth closer than any comet has come in almost eighty years.
There's no danger of a collision. "Goodness, no," says Yeomans. "The closest fragment will be about six million miles away--or twenty-five times farther than the Moon." That's close without actually being scary
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