New, Close-Up View Probes the Nature of Sunspots


Seriously, I don’t think we should stare at this too long … but for scientists who plan to, this new, high-resolution view of a sunspot stands to unlock secrets of the Sun’s mysterious energetics.

In the just-released image above, the interface between a sunspot’s umbra (dark center) and penumbra (lighter outer region) shows a complex structure with narrow, almost horizontal (lighter to white) filaments embedded in a background having a more vertical (darker to black) magnetic field. Farther out, extended patches of horizontal field dominate. For the first time, scientists have modeled this complex structure in a comprehensive 3D computer simulation, giving scientists their first glimpse below the visible surface.

The international team of scientists, led by the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) in Boulder, Colorado, say the high-resolution simulations of sunspot pairs open the way for researchers to learn more about the vast, mysterious dark patches on the Sun’s surface. Sunspots are the most striking surface manifestations of solar magnetism, and they are associated with massive ejections of charged plasma that can cause geomagnetic storms and disrupt communications and navigational systems. They also contribute to variations in overall solar output, which can affect weather on Earth and exert a subtle (and as-yet deciphered) influence on climate patterns.

The new research, by scientists at NCAR and the Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research (MPS) in Germany, appears this week in Science Express.

“This is the first time we have a model of an entire sunspot,” says lead author Matthias Rempel, a scientist at NCAR’s High Altitude Observatory. “If you want to understand all the drivers of Earth’s atmospheric system, you have to understand how sunspots emerge and evolve. Our simulations will advance research into the inner workings of the Sun as well as connections between solar output and Earth’s atmosphere.”

Ever since outward flows from the center of sunspots were discovered 100 years ago, scientists have worked toward explaining the complex structure of sunspots, whose number peaks and wanes during the 11-year solar cycle. Sunspots encompass intense magnetic activity that is associated with solar flares and massive ejections of plasma that can buffet Earth’s atmosphere. The resulting damage to power grids, satellites, and other sensitive technological systems takes an economic toll on a rising number of industries.

Creating such detailed simulations would not have been possible even as recently as a few years ago, before the latest generation of supercomputers and a growing array of instruments to observe the Sun. Partly because of such new technology, scientists have already made advances in solving the equations that describe the physics of solar processes.

©UCAR, image courtesy Matthias Rempel, NCAR.
©UCAR, image courtesy Matthias Rempel, NCAR.

Source: University Corporation for Atmospheric Research (UCAR), via American Astronomical Society (AAS) press wire

13 Replies to “New, Close-Up View Probes the Nature of Sunspots”

  1. I used to be a bit of a whiz with the mathematics around electromagnetic fields and waves and I was also none too shabby with the supercomputer. I say these things not to boast, of course, but just so that I hope you will join me in applauding this image. The complexity of the models used and the skill of the people involved in producing this simulation brought a smile to my face. Their lab must be plastered with such images – you wouldn’t even need coffee when you arrived at work in the morning!

  2. If this picture were sent back to 1968 it would be a popular poster of psychadelic art. I am not exactly sure what I am seeing as yet, but this is a rather stunning picture.

  3. Lawrence may be dating himself with the picture, but he sure has a point! 🙂

  4. It is magnificent!!! It just took my breadth away… I hope i can print it out as a poster soon!!!

  5. The psychadelic art was a bit before my time, but I do remember some of it in the 70’s. I am not aged yet, but there are some creeping elements of age coming in, and I can’t call myself young anymore.

    Are these images benchmarked against real data in anyway? They do look of course similar to sunspots, but I presume there are also physical data behind them.

  6. Awesome!

    EM effects are an endless joy, and when coupled with matter all the more. Just read on the ITER fusion power rescheduling (3 years of delays at end of project by reverting back to a conventional and safe start up plan; now commercial reactors earliest at the last quarter of the decade), and it strikes me how complex even these geometrically symmetrical systems becomes. To mitigate edge instabilities ITER has a frozen hydrogen pellet gun, which contributes fuel and cooling locally by _targeted injection_. Operating a fusion reactor will be endlessly dynamic and fun even if controlled by computers, and Stargate Atlantis freaky entropic reactors doesn’t seem too far from reality in these aspects now!

    @ Lawrence:

    But if we are to consider diminishing capabilities as you seem to suggest, no one beyond 20 can call themselves young. I don’t know if we would use such a measure for real.

    And if we instead consider comparable capabilities, the brain function of the very old are hauntingly similar to the very young in some respects. I don’t know if any comparisons on data have been made though, but meanwhile one could argue that the very old seems “young in mind”. 🙂

    Biologically we are old as soon as we have contributed to the next generation, which is a) after procreation (most organisms) b) caretaking (many animals and plants, possibly even bacteria in biofilms). Now biologists hypothesize on males that they possibly contribute to human long life by procreating with young females when old, and on females by the grandmother caretaking effect. (Caretaking also now seems to be contributed in parts to men, mind.)

    So I dunno if we ever get old by that, seemingly appropriate, measure. Dead, sure. :-/

  7. That was supposed to be AFTER a comment on the Science Express paper (that one seems to have vanished)! 🙁

    Here’s, more or less, what it said …
    – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –
    You can get to the abstract of the Science Express paper by clicking on the UCAR link and then the Science Express link at the bottom of the page and then …

    … or clicking on this link:

    [URL to follow, in my next comment]

    Unfortunately, to get the paper itself you have to pay, or otherwise have access.

    However, the technique(s) used seem to be described in an earlier paper, “Radiative MHD simulation of sunspot structure”, by M. Rempel, M. Schuessler, M. Knoelker, which is “To be published in ApJ”. Link to the abstract in arXiv in the next comment.

  8. Very very nice. The future of physics at anything bar the most fundamental level lies firmly in numerical simulations in my opinion. When it comes to dynamical systems, analytic solutions are instructive, yet anything we can actually solve is always going to be grossly oversimplified.

    Clearly physical understanding of a phenomena is gained via the interplay and contrasts between simplified analytic solutions and numerical models, but it is the numerical modeling that will really push the boundaries of knowledge in the next century, at least at the less-than-fundamental complex systems level that comprises 90% of what we currently wish to know. Imagine the computing resources that will be available in 50 years? We’ll have the equivalent of today’s supercomputers as gaming consoles in our lounge rooms. The supercomputers of that day will be, well, unimaginably impressive. Limited only by programming techniques I should say!

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