On August 31, 2012 a long filament of solar material that had been hovering in the sun’s atmosphere, the corona, erupted out into space at 4:36 p.m. EDT. The coronal mass ejection, or CME, traveled at over 900 miles per second – This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.
The sun simmered red as it slunk towards the jagged horizon. Herman Pope and Krista Hubbard stood watching it from the parking lot at the Houston Space Center anticipating their last day on Earth.
“When will the Object reach perihelion?” The twenty-eight year old systems engineer grasped the older gentleman’s hand without taking her gaze off of the sunset.
The fifty-five year old senior operations manager looked at his watch, which had been his father’s before his. “Less than thirty minutes.”
“That’s how long we have?”
“Maybe. Are you sure you don’t want to go back inside? The Argonaut is transmitting continual status updates.”
“Round trip communications between here and Mercury’s orbit is something like 13 minutes.”
“If it happens, we won’t feel the effects for a while.”
“Yeah, but my brother in Hawaii won’t be having a good day. He’s supposed to graduate from college there next month.”
“Come on, Krista.” He gently tugged on her arm.
“No.” She pulled back harder than she had to. “I want to stay out here.”
An artist’s illustration of a flare from Proxima Centauri, modeled after the loops of glowing, hot gas seen in the largest solar flares. The planet Proxima b, seen here in an artist’s impression, orbits Proxima Centauri 20 times closer than Earth orbits the sun. A flare 10 times larger than a major solar flare would blast Proxima b with 4,000 times more radiation than Earth gets from solar flares.
Credit: Roberto Molar Candanosa/Carnegie Institution for Science, NASA/SDO, NASA/JPL
Meredith Wallace stood outside the lander and stared up at its magnificence visible only because of her helmet’s shielded visor. The gigantic loops of glowing hot plasma from Proxima Centauri were large enough to be seen from 4.6 million miles away because they were twenty times as large as solar flares from Earth’s sun.
No one had predicted such a massive build up of magnetic energy within this star. The cluster of sunspots, the flare’s eruption site, was just north of the sun’s equator and positioned almost directly at the planet. The electromagnetic radiation wasn’t visible to the unaided eye, but for Meredith, the coronal mass ejections were like an astonishing Phoenix rising from its ashes, climbing far into the space between star and this world only to follow relentless magnetic forces back down like a brilliantly flaming Icarus.
“There’s no hope then.”