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Sun Grows Super-Hot 'Dragon Tail' in Amazing NASA Video

Sun Filament Breaking Off Into Space
NASA's Solar Dynamics Laboratory posted this image on Facebook, Jan. 31, 2013. They wrote: "Here is a first look at 45 minutes (15 min. intervals) of this beautiful filament collapsing and blasting into space." (Image credit: NASA SDO (via Facebook as NASA Solar Dynamics Observatory (Little SDO)))

A NASA spacecraft studying the sun has recorded amazing video of a giant plume of super-hot plasma erupting from the star's surface, only to crash back down hours later.

The solar plasma eruption, which NASA scientists nicknamed a "Dragon Tail," rose up from the sun's surface today (Jan. 31) and was spotted by the agency's Solar Dynamics Observatory, a powerful spacecraft that constantly records the sun's weather in different wavelengths of light.

A video of the Dragon Tail solar eruption shows a tendril of solar plasma, which scientists call a "filament," extending across the northeastern face of the sun over the course of four hours. Near the end of the event, the filament begins to break apart.

"Some of the plasma was released into space but not all could escape the gravitational pull of the sun," SDO mission officials explained in a video description. "It's not surprising that plasma should fall back to the sun. After all, the sun's gravity is powerful. "

Filaments are plasma formations on the sun sculpted by the star's intense magnetic field, with one end anchored to the sun's surface. The other end can extend through the sun's outer atmosphere, called the corona, hundreds of thousands of miles into space.

A huge filament of super-hot plasma, nicknamed the "Dragon Tail," erupts from the sun on Jan. 31, 2013, in this still image from NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory. (Image credit: NASA SDO (via Facebook as NASA Solar Dynamics Observatory (Little SDO)))

Filament structures typically last about a single day, though stable ones can exist for months at a time, SDO officials explained. The plasma in filaments consists of super-hot helium and hydrogen that is electrically charged, they added.

NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory is one of several spacecraft constantly monitoring the sun for signs of solar flares, eruptions and other space weather events. The sun is currently in an active phase of its 11-year solar weather cycle and is expected to reach its peak activity period in 2013. The current sun weather cycle is known as Solar Cycle 24.

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Tariq Malik

SPACE.COM EDITOR IN CHIEF — Tariq joined the team in 2001 as a staff writer, and later editor, covering human spaceflight, exploration and space science. He became's Managing Editor in 2009. Before joining, Tariq was a staff reporter for The Los Angeles Times. He is also an Eagle Scout (yes, he has the Space Exploration merit badge) and went to Space Camp four times as a kid and a fifth time as an adult. He has journalism degrees from the University of Southern California and New York University. To see his latest project, you can follow Tariq on Google+, Twitter and on Facebook.