Up, Up and Away! Helium Balloon Telescope Explores the Sun

by Nancy Atkinson on November 11, 2009

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Exploring the Sun via helium balloon almost sounds like an adventure for an animated movie, but the SUNRISE balloon-borne telescope has captured data and images that show the complex interplay on the solar surface to a level of detail never before achieved. As in the video above, SUNRISE shows our local star to be a bubbling, boiling mass where packages of gas rise and sink, lending the sun its grainy surface structure. Dark spots appear and disappear, clouds of matter dart up – and behind the whole thing are the magnetic fields, the engines of it all.

SUNRISE enables tiny magnetic fields on the surface of the Sun to be measured at a level of detail never before achieved. Credit: Image: MPS/IMAX consortium

SUNRISE enables tiny magnetic fields on the surface of the Sun to be measured at a level of detail never before achieved. Credit: Image: MPS/IMAX consortium


“Thanks to its excellent optical quality, the SUFI instrument was able to depict the very small magnetic structures with high intensity contrast, while the IMaX instrument simultaneously recorded the magnetic field and the flow velocity of the hot gas in these structures and their environment,” said Dr. Achim Gandorfer, project scientist for SUNRISE at the Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research.

Previously, the observed physical processes could only be simulated with complex computer models.
“Thanks to SUNRISE, these models can now be placed on a solid experimental basis,” said Manfred Schüssler, co-founder of the mission.

SUNRISE is the largest solar telescope ever to have left Earth. It was launched from the ESRANGE Space Centre in Kiruna, northern Sweden, on June 8, 2009. The total equipment weighed in at more than six tons on launch. Carried by a gigantic helium balloon with a capacity of a million cubic meters and a diameter of around 130 meters, SUNRISE reached a cruising altitude of 37 kilometers above the Earth’s surface.

In the stratosphere, observational conditions are similar to those in outer space. The images are no longer affected by air turbulence, and the camera can also zoom in on the Sun in ultraviolet light, which would otherwise be absorbed by the ozone layer. After making its observations, SUNRISE separated from the balloon, and parachuted safely down to Earth on June 14th, landing on Somerset Island, a large island in Canada’s Nunavut Territory.

Grainy sun: the images show the so-called granulation in four different wavelengths in near ultraviolet light. The image section depicts 1/20,000 of the entire surface. The smallest recognisable structures have an angular resolution equal to that of looking at a coin from a distance of 100 kilometres. The light structures are the foundational elements of the magnetic fields. Credit: Image: MPI for Solar System Research

Grainy sun: the images show the so-called granulation in four different wavelengths in near ultraviolet light. The image section depicts 1/20,000 of the entire surface. The smallest recognisable structures have an angular resolution equal to that of looking at a coin from a distance of 100 kilometres. The light structures are the foundational elements of the magnetic fields. Credit: Image: MPI for Solar System Research


The work of analyzing the total of 1.8 terabytes of observation data recorded by the telescope during its five-day flight has only just begun. Yet the first findings already give a promising indication that the mission will bring our understanding of the Sun and its activity a great leap forward. What is particularly interesting is the connection between the strength of the magnetic field and the brightness of tiny magnetic structures. Since the magnetic field varies in an eleven-year cycle of activity, the increased presence of these foundational elements brings a rise in overall solar brightness – resulting in greater heat input to the Earth.

The variations in solar radiation are particularly pronounced in ultraviolet light. This light does not reach the surface of the Earth; the ozone layer absorbs and is warmed by it. During its flight through the stratosphere, SUNRISE carried out the first ever study of the bright magnetic structures on the solar surface in this important spectral range with a wavelength of between 200 and 400 nanometers (millionths of a millimeter).

SUNRISE is a collaborative project between the Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research in Katlenburg-Lindau, with partners in Germany, Spain and the USA.

Source: PhysOrg

About 

Nancy Atkinson is Universe Today's Senior Editor. She also is the host of the NASA Lunar Science Institute podcast and works with Astronomy Cast. Nancy is also a NASA/JPL Solar System Ambassador.

Nereid November 15, 2009 at 4:25 PM

… that should read “does not include planetary motion or cosmic microwave radiation”

IVAN3MAN November 15, 2009 at 7:13 PM

Oh, and another thing…
Anaconda:

From outright denial of ‘electromagnetism’ in space at the start to grudging admission — and in your case, Nereid, you have been reduced to ducking questions and refusing to discuss published peer-reviewed papers.

Who the bloody hell is denying ‘electromagnetism’ in space here?

Dude, it may have escaped your attention, because you’re to damn busy burning out your keyboard by typing your stupid diatribe against mainstream astronomy, but this is the 400th year of the invention of the telescope — an optical device that collects the ELECTROMAGNETIC WAVES KNOWN AS LIGHT — which the International Astronomy Union is currently celebrating!

Furthermore, NASA and ESA have, between them, these telescopes collecting all manner of ELECTROMAGNETIC waves across the whole bloody spectrum: HST; Spitzer; Chandra; Swift; Fermi; INTEGRAL; Ulysses; SOHO; STEREO A & B; WMAP; Planck; etc.

I told you all this before, so WTF are you moaning about?

IVAN3MAN November 15, 2009 at 7:24 PM

D’OH! No bloody edit facility here…

At the second paragraph after the block-quote, in first line, it should be: “…because you’re too damn busy…”; not “to”.

IVAN3MAN November 15, 2009 at 7:57 PM

Also, above, I should have placed the term “light” within double quotation marks.

IVAN3MAN November 16, 2009 at 12:02 AM

Further correction: that “to” should be in between “…comes [to] providing…” at my previous post above.

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