One hundred fifty years ago today, the Sun went haywire. [audio: Sun Cassini]
Above its surface, tangled lines of magnetic force short-circuited with the power of billions of H-bombs. For perhaps a couple of minutes, that made the Sun look much brighter than normal.
British astronomers Richard Carrington and Richard Hodgson were looking at the Sun as the explosion took place. Both had been studying a large group of dark sunspots. As they watched, several brilliant bursts of light suddenly erupted around the sunspots.
Carrington was making a detailed drawing of the Sun by using a telescope to project its image on a sheet of paper. When he first saw the outburst, he watched for a minute or two in shock -- no one had ever seen anything like it. He quickly recovered his wits, though, and as the spectacle faded away, he added it to his drawing.
Carrington and Hodgson had witnessed a solar flare -- the first ever recorded. And to this date, it's still the most powerful ever recorded. In fact, the flare was probably the most powerful the Sun has produced in the last five centuries.
No one understood it at the time, but the flare of 1859 produced a torrent of X-rays and radio waves -- like those from this smaller flare a few years ago. [audio: Sun Cassini 2] And it was accompanied by an explosion of particles that would soon batter Earth. More about that tomorrow.
Script by Damond Benningfield, Copyright 2009
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