Solar prominences put on strange and beautiful show in the Sun's sky (w/ Video)

Jul 04, 2013
Rotating disc motions. Credit: NASA/SDO/Li/Smith/Aberystwyth University

(Phys.org) —Cloud spotting seems to be growing in popularity as a hobby here on Earth. Now scientists studying the solar atmosphere are building their own collection of fascinating moving features that they've spotted in the Sun's sky.  The unusual solar prominences include a giant disc that rotates for several hours, feathery streamers as long as fifty Earths, a super-heated jet striking the top of a prominence and twisted ribbons flowing in opposite directions at a million kilometres per hour.

The features were discovered by Dr Xing Li and PhD student, Jeff Smith, of Aberystwyth University using the Atmospheric Imaging Assembly (AIA) telescope on board the Solar Dynamics Observatory (SDO) satellite. The findings have been presented at the RAS National Astronomy Meeting in St Andrews.

Prominences are – relatively – cold gaseous features, with temperatures around 5000 degrees Celsius compared to the surrounding the hot of about 1-2 million degrees. They can be seen as towering features extending outwards from the Sun's surface, often in the shape of a loop. They are called when viewed against the , appearing as dark stripes because the cold gases they contain absorb the light emitted from below. Solar prominences and filaments supply most of the material released in coronal , vast eruptions from the Sun's atmosphere that can cause and create on Earth.

Rotating discs in solar prominences were first observed decades ago, using ground-based telescopes, and have puzzled solar physicists since. The new SDO observations of a rotating disc reveal that the feature covers a temperature range from a few thousand to one million degrees Celsius. Li and Smith believe that the rotation is caused by turbulence produced at the interface of two gases of enormously different temperatures.

This video is not supported by your browser at this time.
Rotating disc motions. Credit: NASA/SDO/Li/Smith/Aberystwyth University

"We think the rotation is produced when hot gases enter a cold medium in an organised fashion. The magnetic field serves as a thermal barrier between the two media. The resulting rotation can last hours," said Li.

The persistent horizontal motion of feathery streamers from a solar prominence was observed by SDO over a period of more than 15 hours. Li and Smith believe that the likely cause is a large-scale, slow restructuring of the magnetic field through a process called magnetic reconnection.

This video is not supported by your browser at this time.
Persistent filament/prominence horizontal motions: Credit: NASA/SDO/Li/Smith/ Aberystwyth University

This video is not supported by your browser at this time.
Superheated jet striking a prominence. The jet is emitted to the left of the prominence and travels in an anticlockwise arc, striking the top of the prominence.

In a further observation, lasting around three hours, a jet of superheated gases as hot as 1.5 - 2 million degrees Celsius was sucked from the coronal cavity surrounding a prominence and spiralled up along a helical path to strike the top of prominence 50 000 km high.

"The feat of the jet hitting the top of the prominence, and the distances involved, is comparable to a ballistic missile hitting a satellite in geostationary orbit!" said Li.

This video is not supported by your browser at this time.
Counter-streaming motions

Finally the SDO imagery showed counter-streaming flows at more than a million kilometres per hour along a filament channel consisting of many very thin threads.

"These fabulous motions suggest more complex magnetic structures of filaments/prominences than scientists previously thought," said Li.

Smith added: "These events are beautiful to observe and also set a fascinating challenge to get to the bottom of the physics involved."

Explore further: Solar dynamic loops reveal a simultaneous explosion and implosion, plus evidence for magnetic reconnection

Related Stories

Huge tornadoes discovered on the Sun

Mar 29, 2012

(PhysOrg.com) -- Solar tornadoes several times as wide as the Earth can be generated in the solar atmosphere, say researchers in the UK. A solar tornado was discovered using the Atmospheric Imaging Assembly ...

STEREO spots a CME soaring into space

Sep 11, 2012

The enormous eruption of a solar prominence and resulting coronal mass ejection (CME) back on August 31 that was captured in amazing HD by NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory was also spotted by the Sun-flanking STEREO-B spacecraft, ...

Double trouble on the Sun

Nov 19, 2012

(Phys.org)—The Sun erupted with two prominence eruptions, one after the other over a four-hour period on Nov. 16, 2012, between the hours of 1 and 5 a.m. EST. The red-glowing looped material is plasma, ...

Recommended for you

Vegetables on Mars within ten years?

21 hours ago

The soil on Mars may be suitable for cultivating food crops – this is the prognosis of a study by plant ecologist Wieger Wamelink of Wageningen UR. This would prove highly practical if we ever decide to ...

NASA Cassini images may reveal birth of a Saturn moon

22 hours ago

(Phys.org) —NASA's Cassini spacecraft has documented the formation of a small icy object within the rings of Saturn that may be a new moon, and may also provide clues to the formation of the planet's known ...

Meteorite studies suggest hidden water on Mars

22 hours ago

Geochemical calculations by researchers at Tokyo Institute of Technology to determine how the water content of Mars has changed over the past 4.5 billion years suggest as yet unidentified reservoirs of water ...

User comments : 0

More news stories

ESO image: A study in scarlet

This new image from ESO's La Silla Observatory in Chile reveals a cloud of hydrogen called Gum 41. In the middle of this little-known nebula, brilliant hot young stars are giving off energetic radiation that ...

Astronomers: 'Tilt-a-worlds' could harbor life

A fluctuating tilt in a planet's orbit does not preclude the possibility of life, according to new research by astronomers at the University of Washington, Utah's Weber State University and NASA. In fact, ...

NASA Cassini images may reveal birth of a Saturn moon

(Phys.org) —NASA's Cassini spacecraft has documented the formation of a small icy object within the rings of Saturn that may be a new moon, and may also provide clues to the formation of the planet's known ...

First direct observations of excitons in motion achieved

A quasiparticle called an exciton—responsible for the transfer of energy within devices such as solar cells, LEDs, and semiconductor circuits—has been understood theoretically for decades. But exciton movement within ...

Patent talk: Google sharpens contact lens vision

(Phys.org) —A report from Patent Bolt brings us one step closer to what Google may have in mind in developing smart contact lenses. According to the discussion Google is interested in the concept of contact ...

Warm US West, cold East: A 4,000-year pattern

Last winter's curvy jet stream pattern brought mild temperatures to western North America and harsh cold to the East. A University of Utah-led study shows that pattern became more pronounced 4,000 years ago, ...

Tech giants look to skies to spread Internet

The shortest path to the Internet for some remote corners of the world may be through the skies. That is the message from US tech giants seeking to spread the online gospel to hard-to-reach regions.