Stunning New Solar Atmosphere Images Could Help Solve Longstanding Mysteries
An image of an active, magnetically complicated region of the Sun captured by the new Hi-C instrument. It shows plasma in the outer solar atmosphere at a temperature of 1-2 million degrees Celsius. The inset box at bottom left shows ‘sparkle’ features that are releasing vast amounts of energy into the corona. The box at top right shows a close-up of part of a solar filament where ‘blobs’ of solar plasma flow along thread-like ‘highway’ structures. Credit: NASA MSFC and UCLan.
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Thanks to an innovative new camera on board a sounding rocket, an international team of scientists has managed to capture pictures of the sun’s outer atmosphere that are five times sharper than any previous images.
The images, which were scheduled to be presented by University of Central Lancashire professor Robert Walshat the Royal Astronomical Society (RAS) National Astronomy Meeting on Monday, were captured using the NASA High Resolution Coronal Imager (Hi-C).
Walsh and colleagues from the UK, US and Russia used a sounding rocket to launch Hi-C from the White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico, RAS officials said. During its brief flight, the Hi-C team was able to secure the high-quality solar corona images, acquiring roughly one picture each five seconds. They were also reportedly able to discover “fast-track ‘highways’ and intriguing ‘sparkles’ that may help answer a long-standing solar mystery.
According to the researchers, those dynamic bright spots switch on and off. They last approximately 25 seconds, are roughly 680 kilometers (423 miles) across and release at least 10,000 times the annual energy consumption of the entire UK population during each event.
As such, these sparkles clearly demonstrate that massive amounts of energy are being added into the corona, and could then be released violently in order to heat the plasma. By discovering them in the Hi-C images, the authors believe they could help explain why the sun’s corona is about 400 times hotter than the solar surface.
Also in the new images, the researchers report the discovery of “small clumps of electrified gas (plasma) at a temperature of about one million degrees Celsius.” These clumps, they note, “are seen racing along highways shaped by the Sun’s magnetic field,” traveling at approximately 80 kilometers per second (50 miles per second) — or the equivalent of 235 times the speed of sound on Earth.
Each highway is 450 kilometers (280 miles) across, or just about the entire length of the country of Ireland from its northern-most point to its southern-most one, the Society said. These flows are inside a region of dense plasma known as a solar filament. These areas can erupt outward from the sun in phenomenon known ascoronal mass ejections (CMEs), and carry billions of tons of plasma into space.
“If a CME travels in the right direction it can interact with the Earth, disturbing the terrestrial magnetic field in a ‘space weather’ event that can have a range of destructive consequences from damaging satellite electronics to overloading power grids on the ground,” the researchers said. By discovering and learning more about the nature of these so-called solar highways, scientists might be able “to better understand the driving force for these eruptions and help predict with greater accuracy when CMEs might take place.”
“I’m incredibly proud of the work of my colleagues in developing Hi-C,” Walsh said. “The camera is effectively a microscope that lets us view small scale events on the Sun in unprecedented detail. For the first time we can unpick the detailed nature of the solar corona, helping us to predict when outbursts from this region might head towards the Earth.”