This could have an unprecedented effect on electronics on Earth, which could in turn cause further devastating effects on human life.
For those that follow Bible prophecy, look no further than Revelation 8:2.
- Coronal holes are regions of the corona where the magnetic field reaches out into space
- Particles moving along those magnetic fields can leave the sun rather than being trapped near the surface
- Polar coronal hole can remain visible for five years or longer, although constantly changes shape
There were no fireworks on the sun to welcome in the New Year – and in fact, scientists say the end of the year was relatively quiet on the solar surface.
However, the sun has started 2015 with a mysterious event – a huge hole has appeared.
Known as a coronal hole, the phenomenon occurred near the south pole – and is seen as a dark area covered all of its base in these stunning images.
As Solar Cycle 24 fades, the number of flares each day will get smaller, but the coronal holes provide another source of space weather that needs to be understood and predicted.
Coronal holes are a typical feature on the sun, though they appear at different places and with more frequency at different times of the sun’s activity cycle.
The holes are important to our understanding of space weather, as they are the source of a high-speed wind of solar particles that streams off the sun some three times faster than the slower wind elsewhere.
While it’s unclear what causes coronal holes, they correlate to areas on the sun where magnetic fields soar up and away, failing to loop back down to the surface, as they do elsewhere.
The material constantly flowing outward is called the solar wind, which typically ‘blows’ at around 250 miles (400 km) per second.
When a coronal hole is present, though, the wind speed can double to nearly 500 miles (800 km) per second.
The images comes weeks after warnings that Earth could be hit by a series of damaging solar flares after the largest sunspot to be seen on the star for 24 years aligns with our planet.
The sunspot, previously known as Active Region 12192, began facing Earth in October but did not produce any coronal mass ejection (CMEs).
CMEs are the most energetic events in our solar system, involving huge bubbles of plasma and magnetic fields being spewed from the sun’s surface into space.
The region, renamed Active Region 12192, has now rotated around to face Earth again, and is likely to create CMEs, Nasa scientist Holly Gilbert told Space.com during a video interview.
‘This time around, it’s more likely to have some coronal mass ejections associated with it, even though the solar flares might be smaller,’ she said.
‘We have a good idea, based on the structure of that magnetic field and the sunspot, that it’s very possible that it will create some mid-level flares.’
Magnetic fields in sunspots can store vast amounts of energy, but looping magnetic field lines can get tangled up and snap, releasing their energy as explosions called flares.
Earlier this year, Ashley Dale, who is a member of an international task force, dubbed Solarmax, warned that solar ‘super-storms’ pose a ‘catastrophic’ and ‘long-lasting’ threat to life on Earth.
A solar superstorm occurs when a CME of sufficient magnitude tears into the Earth’s surrounding magnetic field and rips it apart.
Such an event could induce huge surges of electrical currents in the ground and in overhead transmission lines, causing widespread power outages and severely damaging critical electrical components.
Mr Dale, carrying out doctoral research in aerospace engineering at Bristol University, said it is only a ‘matter of time’ before an exceptionally violent solar storm is propelled towards Earth.
He says such a storm would wreak havoc with communication systems and power supplies, crippling vital services such as transport, sanitation and medicine.
Without power, people would struggle to fuel their cars at petrol stations, get money from cash dispensers or pay online,’ he said.
‘Water and sewage systems would be affected too, meaning that health epidemics in urbanised areas would quickly take a grip, with diseases we thought we had left behind centuries ago soon returning.’
The largest ever solar super-storm on record occurred in 1859 and is known as the Carrington Event, named after the English astronomer Richard Carrington who spotted the preceding solar flare.
This massive CME released about 1022 kJ of energy – the equivalent to 10 billion Hiroshima bombs exploding at the same time – and hurled around a trillion kilos of charged particles towards the Earth at speeds of up to 3000 km/s.
However, its impact on the human population was relatively benign as our electronic infrastructure at the time amounted to no more than about 124,000 miles (200,000 km) of telegraph lines.
Mr Dale says these types of events are not just a threat, but inevitable.
Nasa scientists have predicted that the Earth is in the path of a Carrington-level event every 150 years on average.
This means that we are currently five years overdue – and that the likelihood of one occurring in the next decade is as high as 12 per cent.