The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Satellite captures dramatic solar storm erupting over star cluster

It’s a sign of the upcoming peak to the ‘solar cycle’

A prominent coronal mass ejection erupts from the sun on Monday morning. (NASA/SOHO)
3 min

NASA’s Solar and Heliospheric Observatory (SOHO) documented a mesmerizing space scene on Monday, capturing the moments a massive “coronal mass ejection” erupted from the surface of the sun and swept over a star cluster known as the Pleiades or Seven Sisters.

Coronal mass ejections, or CMEs, can launch high-energy particles, solar plasma and additional magnetic chaos into space.

This massive CME leaped from the far side of the sun. The impressive scene captured the attention of, a clearinghouse for space weather information, which shared the imagery.

Southern and northern lights sweep planet in stunning display of auroras

An amazing video

Monday’s CME took the form of a “full halo CME,” or one that produces a ring-like signature on instruments, in this case the SOHO satellite. The interstellar shock wave appeared to radiate outward in all directions, reminiscent of the ripples that surround a rock dropped in a pond.

When directed toward Earth, full halo CMEs collide with Earth’s magnetosphere, or our own protective magnetic field, and are often associated with imminent displays of the northern and southern lights, or the aurora borealis and australis, respectively. Such strong solar storms can also damage electrical infrastructure, harm satellites and even deliver unhealthy radiation to airline passengers flying near the poles.

In this case, however, the CME was moving away from Earth, probably at speeds at more than a million miles per hour, meaning no probable impact.

The CME captured by SOHO was especially notable for passing in front of the Pleiades, a star cluster about 444 light-years from Earth (meaning the light we see when we look at the stars is actually from the era of Shakespeare). Before the launch of SOHO in 1995, spotting stars from a sensor pointed at the sun was just a pipe dream.

Why ‘solar flares’ are becoming more common

Many CMEs are preceded by solar flares, which are more concentrated filaments of magnetism and visible light that can last minutes to hours.

The majority of solar flares and CMEs come from sunspots, or bruiselike discolorations on the surface of the sun. They’re regions of cooler temperatures from which magnetic flux emanates. Sunspots are born from interactions between interfering bands of magnetism that encircle the sun.

Sunspots are most common every 11 years at the peak of the “solar cycle.” While any sunspot can produce a CME and a resulting Earth-effective solar storm, a greater number of sunspots means a greater propensity of impactful events.

The ongoing solar cycle, the 25th that scientists have tracked, has “roared to life” faster than expected, according to, and is expected to peak anywhere from late 2024 to 2025.

Indeed, the sun has been bustling with activity in recent months. Multiple breathtaking displays of the northern lights have reached as far south as the southern United States, and more may be in the offing in the years ahead.