Solar Eruption Seen in Unprecedented Detail

May 27, 2008

On April 9, the Sun erupted and blasted a bubble of hot, ionized gas into the solar system. The eruption was observed in unprecedented detail by a fleet of spacecraft, revealing new features that are predicted by computer models but difficult to see in practice.

The observations are being discussed today in a press briefing at the American Geophysical Union Joint Assembly in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.

Such eruptions, called coronal mass ejections or CMEs, happen periodically and pose a potential threat to astronauts or satellites if aimed at Earth. Astronomers study these explosions in hope of being able to predict them and provide “space weather” forecasts. The April 9 CME occurred on the edge or limb of the Sun as viewed from Earth. As a result, the X-ray brightening (solar flare) usually associated with a CME was hidden from view, allowing sun-watching spacecraft to take longer exposures and uncover fainter structures than usual.

“Observations like this are very rare,” said Smithsonian astronomer Ed DeLuca, (Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics) who is presenting the findings at today’s press briefing.

Using the Smithsonian-developed X-ray Telescope (XRT) aboard the Hinode sun-watching satellite, astronomers saw a spiral (helical) magnetic structure unwind as it left the Sun during the CME. Such unwinding can release energy as the magnetic field goes from a more twisted to a less twisted configuration, thereby helping to power the eruption.

Hours later, XRT revealed an inflow of material toward a feature that appears as a bright line—actually an object known as a current sheet seen edge-on. A current sheet is a thin, electrified sheet of gas where oppositely directed magnetic field lines annihilate one another in a process known as magnetic reconnection. The extended observations from XRT show that magnetic fields flow in toward the current sheet for many hours after the eruption, progressing first toward the sheet and then down to the sun’s surface.

Computer models of CMEs predict such movements of magnetic field lines, but observing them has proven difficult. The unique positioning of this CME on the sun’s limb allowed astronomers to measure those motions.

They also determined that the temperature of the current sheet is between 5 and 18 million degrees Fahrenheit, which matches previous measurements higher up in the corona by the Ultraviolet Coronagraph Spectrometer on the SOHO spacecraft.

A workshop is planned to study in detail the results from Hinode XRT, and other observations of this event by TRACE, STEREO, RHESSI, SOHO, and Hinode’s other instruments. Together, those observations will provide a more complete picture of the source and evolution of CMEs.

Hinode is a Japanese mission developed and launched by ISAS/JAXA, with NAOJ as domestic partner and NASA and STFC (UK) as international partners. It is operated by these agencies in cooperation with ESA and the NSC (Norway).

Source: Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics

Explore further: Cosmologists weigh cosmic filaments and voids

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

The promise and peril of nanotechnology

Mar 26, 2014

Scientists at Northwestern University have found a way to detect metastatic breast cancer by arranging strands of DNA into spherical shapes and using them to cover a tiny particle of gold, creating a "nano-flare" ...

'Tribo-electric,' the buzzword of the future?

Mar 04, 2014

Out at sea, gentle waves provide power for thousands of homes. In cities, dancefloor moves generate electricity for nightclubs. In the countryside, hikers use leg power to recharge their phones.

Getting a charge from changes in humidity

Jan 27, 2014

(Phys.org) —A new type of electrical generator uses bacterial spores to harness the untapped power of evaporating water, according to research conducted at the Wyss Institute of Biologically Inspired Engineering ...

Recommended for you

Cosmologists weigh cosmic filaments and voids

3 hours ago

(Phys.org) —Cosmologists have established that much of the stuff of the universe is made of dark matter, a mysterious, invisible substance that can't be directly detected but which exerts a gravitational ...

ESO image: A study in scarlet

Apr 16, 2014

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

Apr 15, 2014

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, ...

User comments : 0

More news stories

Cosmologists weigh cosmic filaments and voids

(Phys.org) —Cosmologists have established that much of the stuff of the universe is made of dark matter, a mysterious, invisible substance that can't be directly detected but which exerts a gravitational ...

Meteorites yield clues to Martian early atmosphere

(Phys.org) —Geologists who analyzed 40 meteorites that fell to Earth from Mars unlocked secrets of the Martian atmosphere hidden in the chemical signatures of these ancient rocks. Their study, published ...