See a ‘Snake’ Slithering Across the Sun’s Surface

The sun has delivered some wild looks recently. NASA showed off a goofy sun “smile” from October, and now the European Space Agency is pointing out a solar “snake” seen by the Solar Orbiter spacecraft.

A video shows the solar snake in action as a sinuous streak makes its way across the sun’s surface starting near a bright spot on the lower right side of the star.

The footage is a time-lapse captured by the orbiter’s Extreme Ultraviolet Imager on Sept. 5. It took the snake three hours to slither across the solar surface at a breakneck speed of about 170 kilometers (106 miles) per second.

The sun’s scorching temperature means all gas in its atmosphere is a plasma, a superheated state of matter. The snake was created by an interplay of plasma with the sun’s invisible magnetic field (here’s a NASA primer on how that works). Plasma responds to magnetic field lines. “The plasma in the snake is following a particularly long filament of the sun’s magnetic field that is reaching from one side of the sun to another,” ESA said in a statement on Monday.

The snake looks amazing, but it’s also of particular interest from a science perspective. “What makes the snake so inspiring is that it began from a solar active region that later erupted, ejecting billions of tonnes of plasma into space,” said the ESA, saying the snake might have been a precursor to the eruption.

ESA leads the Solar Orbiter mission in partnership with NASA. The spacecraft launched in early 2020 to kick off a mission to study the sun’s mysterious polar regions and capture unprecedented images of our moody star, like this incredible view of its disc and corona.

Data collected on the snake and the eruption by Solar Orbiter and NASA’s complementary Parker Solar Probe mission will help scientists better understand our sun’s activity and how it generates space weather that can impact communications and navigation systems on Earth.

Even if you’re not a fan of snakes on our planet, we can probably agree the solar snake is a marvel.