At 600 mi (1,000 km) above the photosphere, the chromosphere separates into cool, high-density columns, called spicules, and hot, low-density material. The spicules, each about 500 mi (800 km) in diameter, shoot out at 20 mi per sec (32 km per sec) and rise as high as 10,000 mi (16,000 km) before falling back. Any point on the sun will erupt a spicule about once every 24 hr and there may be up to 250,000 of them at any instant.
Other types of solar activity are found to occur in the chromosphere. The elements of each layer are sometimes distributed in bright, cloudlike patches called plages, or flocculi, and in general are located along the same zones as sunspots and fluctuate with the same 11-yr cycle; the relationship between the two is not yet understood.
Most spectacular of the solar features are the streams of hot gas, called prominences, that shoot out thousands or even hundreds of thousands of miles from the sun's surface at velocities as great as 250 mi per sec (400 km per sec). Two major classifications are the quiescent and the eruptive prominences. Quiescent prominences bulge out from the surface about 20,000 mi (32,000 km) and can last days or weeks. Eruptive prominences are thin flames of gas often reaching heights of 250,000 mi (400,000 km); they occur most frequently in the zones containing sunspots. Dark strandlike objects called filaments were discovered on the disk and were originally thought to be a special kind of feature. These are now known to be prominences seen against the bright background of the photosphere.
Until the middle of the 19th cent. prominences could be viewed extending from the edge of the sun's disk only during a solar eclipse. However, in 1868 a method of observing them with a spectroscope at any clear time of day was developed, and in 1930 the invention of the coronagraph allowed them to be continuously photographed.
Another phenomenon occurring in the chromosphere is the solar flare, a sudden and intense brightening in a plage that rises to great brilliance in a few minutes, then fades dramatically in a half hour to several hours. This feature is also associated with sunspots and is thought to be triggered by the sudden collapse of the magnetic field in the plage. A flare releases the energy equivalent of a billion hydrogen bombs and is the most energetic of solar events. The ultraviolet and X-ray radiation from larger flares can disrupt magnetic compasses and navigation and radio signals as well as affect the electrical grid on the earth and can damage satellites and space probes. Cosmic rays and solar wind particles from some flares interact in the polar regions, creating brilliant auroral displays (see aurora).
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.