The Solar Dynamics Observatory captured images and video of a spectacular rotation of material from the Sun in a solar prominence. The whirling, dancing prominence created a massive tornado-like feature on the Sun, five times bigger than the Earth. “This is perhaps the first time that such a huge solar tornado is filmed by an imager,” said Dr. Xing Li of Aberystwyth University, presenting his team’s work at the National Astronomy Meeting this week in the UK. “The superb spatial and temporal resolution of SDO allows us to observe the solar atmosphere in great detail.”
The solar tornado was discovered using the Atmospheric Imaging Assembly (AIA) telescope on board SDO. On September 25, 2011, the AIA saw superheated gases as hot as 50,000 – 2,000,000 Kelvin sucked from the origin of a solar prominence, and spiral up into the high atmosphere. It traveled about 200,000 kilometers (124,000 miles) along the Sun for a period of at least three hours.
The hot gases in the tornadoes have speeds as high as 300,000 km per hour (186,000 mph) as opposed to terrestrial tornadoes, which can reach 150 km/h (90 mph).
Li and his team said that these tornadoes often occur at the root of huge coronal mass ejections. The solar tornadoes drag winding magnetic field and electric currents into the high atmosphere. It is possible that the magnetic field and currents play a key role in driving the coronal mass ejections.
A smaller solar tornado was captured in February of 2012:
The team’s work has been submitted for publication in the Astrophysical Journal. See more of the images and animations here.