A cool discovery about the Sun's next-door twin

Feb 20, 2013
Cool layer in a Sun-like star.

(Phys.org)—ESA's Herschel space observatory has detected a cool layer in the atmosphere of Alpha Centauri A, the first time this has been seen in a star beyond our own Sun. The finding is not only important for understanding the Sun's activity, but could also help in the quest to discover proto-planetary systems around other stars.

The 's nearest neighbours are the three stars of the Alpha Centauri system. The faint , Proxima Centauri, is nearest at just 4.24 light-years, with the tight double star, Alpha Centauri AB, slightly further away at 4.37 light-years.

Alpha Centauri B has recently been in the news after the discovery of an Earth-mass planet in orbit around it. But Alpha Centauri A is also very important to astronomers: almost a twin to the Sun in mass, temperature, and age, it provides an ideal natural laboratory to compare other characteristics of the two stars.

One of the great curiosities in solar science is that the Sun's wispy – the corona – is heated to millions of degrees while the visible surface of the Sun is 'only' about 6000ºC. Even stranger, there is a temperature minimum of about 4000ºC between the two layers, just a few hundred kilometres above the visible surface in the part of Sun's atmosphere called the chromosphere.

Both layers can be seen during a , when the Moon briefly blocks the bright face of the Sun: the chromosphere is a pink-red ring around the Sun, while the ghostly white plasma streamers of the corona extend out millions of kilometres.

The heating of the Sun's atmosphere has been a conundrum for many years, but is likely to be related to the twisting and snapping of sending energy rippling through the atmosphere and out into space – possibly in the direction of Earth – as . Why there is a temperature minimum has also long been of interest to solar scientists.

Now, by observing Alpha Centauri A in far-infrared light with Herschel and comparing the results with computer models of stellar atmospheres, scientists have made the first discovery of an equivalent cool layer in the atmosphere of another star.

"The study of these structures has been limited to the Sun until now, but we clearly see the signature of a similar temperature inversion layer at Alpha Centauri A," says René Liseau of the Onsala , Sweden, and lead author of the paper presenting the results.

"Detailed observations of this kind for a variety of stars might help us decipher the origin of such layers and the overall atmospheric heating puzzle."

Understanding the temperature structure of stellar atmospheres may also help to determine the presence of dusty planet-forming discs around other stars like the Sun.

"Although it is likely only a small effect, a temperature minimum region in other stars could result in us underestimating the amount of dust present in a cold debris disc surrounding it," says Dr Liseau.

"But armed with a more detailed picture of how Alpha Centauri A shines, we can hope to make more accurate detections of the dust in potential planet-bearing systems around other Sun-like stars."

"These observations are an exciting example of how Herschel can be used to learn more about processes in our own Sun, as well as in other Sun-like stars and the dusty discs that may exist around them," says Göran Pilbratt, ESA's Herschel Project Scientist.

Explore further: Next-generation Thirty Meter Telescope begins construction in Hawaii

More information: "α Centauri A in the far infrared. First measurement of the temperature minimum of a star other than the Sun," by R. Liseau et al. is published in Astronomy & Astrophysics 549, L7 (2013).

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cantdrive85
1.4 / 5 (11) Feb 20, 2013
The heating of the Sun's atmosphere has been a conundrum for many years


The umbra (~3000K) observed on the Sun further complicates the standard solar model that the heat comes from within. This is not a conundrum of the Electric Sun model, strangely the observed data supports such model.
Modernmystic
3.7 / 5 (3) Feb 20, 2013
I'm wondering if the zones (upper/lower chromosphere, photosphere, and especially corona) are significantly different for different stellar types.

Since we're talking about temperature variations and a process that is no well understood I'm wondering if this might effect habitable zones for non-G type stars. It could be that those zones would be larger or smaller depending on how each stellar type was effected by said mechanism....
Torbjorn_Larsson_OM
5 / 5 (1) Feb 21, 2013
@ModernMystic: Good question, albeit this data and earlier data such as astroseismology seem to predict that there are similarities between stars.

@cantdrive: Of course there is no conundrum, since there is no EU/PC model. You certainly don't present any quantification, no support or better yet test.

These data doesn't complicate fusion, which is firmly tested from other observations. There isn't even a current strain between star models and a hot corona. The conundrum is, as far as I know, how to identify they correct mechanism by testing.