Solar ‘Bombs’ And Mini-Tornadoes Spotted By Sun-Watching Spacecraft

My, the Sun is a violent place. I mean, we knew that already, but there’s even more evidence for that using new data from a brand-new NASA spacecraft. There’s talk now about tornadoes and jets and even “bombs” swirling amid our Sun’s gassy environment.

A huge set of results from NASA’s Interface Region Imaging Spectrograph (IRIS) spacecraft reveals the true nature of a mysterious transition zone between Sun’s surface and the corona, or atmosphere. Besides the pretty fireworks and videos, these phenomena are telling scientists more about how the Sun moves energy from the center to the outskirts. And, it could tell us more about how stars work in general.

The results are published in five papers yesterday (Oct. 15) in Science magazine. Below, a brief glimpse of what each of these papers revealed about our closest star.


This is a heck of a lot of energy packed in here. Raging at temperatures of 200,000 degrees Fahrenheit (111,093 degrees Celsius) are heat “pockets” — also called “bombs” because they release energy quickly. They were found lower in the atmosphere than expected. The paper is here (led by Hardi Peter of the Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research in Gottingen, Germany.)


It’s a twist! You can see some structures in the chromosphere, just above the Sun’s surface, showing gas spinning like a tornado. They spin around as fast as 12 miles (19 kilometers) a second, which is considered slow-moving on the Sun. The paper is here (led by Bart De Pontieu, the IRIS science lead at Lockheed Martin in California).

High-speed jets

Artist's impression of the solar wind from the sun (left) interacting with Earth's magnetosphere (right). Credit: NASA
Artist’s impression of the solar wind from the sun (left) interacting with Earth’s magnetosphere (right). Credit: NASA

How does the solar wind — that constant stream of charged particles that sometimes cause aurora on Earth — come to be? IRIS spotted high-speed jets of material moving faster than ever observed, 90 miles (145 kilometers) a second. Since these jets are emerging in spots where the magnetic field is weaker (called coronal holes), scientists suspect this could be a source of the solar wind since the particles are thought to originate from there. The paper is here (led by Hui Tian at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in Massachusetts.)


A solar filament erupts with a coronal mass ejection in this image captured by NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory in August 2012. Credit: NASA's GSFC, SDO AIA Team
A solar filament erupts with a coronal mass ejection in this image captured by NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory in August 2012. Credit: NASA’s GSFC, SDO AIA Team

Those solar flares the Sun throws off happen when magnetic field lines cross and then snap back into place, flinging particles into space. Nanoflares could do the same thing to heat up the corona, and that’s something else that IRIS is examining. The paper is here (led by Paola Testa, at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics.)

Structures and more

And here is the transition region in glorious high-definition. Improving on data from the Skylab space station in the 1970s (bottom of video), you can see all sorts of mini-structures on the Sun. The more we learn about these 2,000-mile (3,220-km) objects, the better we’ll understand how heating moves through the Sun. The paper is here (led by Viggo Hansteen, at the University of Oslo in Norway.)

Source: NASA

This Was the Best Watched Solar Flare Ever

Are giant dragons flying out of the Sun? No, this is much more awesome than that: it’s an image of an X-class flare that erupted from active region 2017 on March 29, as seen by NASA’s Interface Region Imaging Spectrograph (IRIS) spacecraft. It was not only IRIS’s first view of such a powerful flare, but with four other solar observatories in space and on the ground watching at the same time it was the best-observed solar flare ever.

(But it does kind of look like a dragon. Or maybe a phoenix. Ah, pareidolia!)

Check out a video from NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center below:

In addition to IRIS, the March 29 flare was observed by NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory (SDO), NASA’s Reuven Ramaty High Energy Solar Spectroscopic Imager (RHESSI), JAXA and NASA’s Hinode spacecraft, and the National Solar Observatory’s Dunn Solar Telescope in New Mexico.

With each telescope equipped with instruments specially designed to observe the Sun in specific wavelengths almost no detail of this particular flare went unnoticed, giving scientists comprehensive data on the complex behavior of a single solar eruption.

Also, for another look at this flare from SDO and a coronal dimming event apparently associated with it, check out Dean Pesnell’s entry on the SDO is GO! blog here.


This Energy-Boosting Region In The Sun Will Have A New NASA Satellite Watching It

How does the sun’s energy flow? Despite the fact that we live relatively close (93 million miles, or eight light-minutes) to this star, and that we have several spacecraft peering at it, we still know little about how energy transfers through the solar atmosphere.

NASA’s next solar mission will launch Wednesday, June 26 (if all goes to plan) to try to learn a little bit more. It’s called the Interface Region Imaging Spectrograph (IRIS), and it will zero in on a spot in the sun’s lower atmosphere known as the “interface region.” The zone only has a thickness of  3,000 to 6,000 miles and is seen as a key transfer point to the sun’s incredibly hot corona (that you can see during total solar eclipses.)

“IRIS will extend our observations of the sun to a region that has historically been difficult to study,” stated Joe Davila, IRIS project scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center. “Understanding the interface region better improves our understanding of the whole corona and, in turn, how it affects the solar system.”

Figuring out more about the interface region, NASA stated, will teach us a lot more about the “space weather” that affects Earth.

Some of the energy in the interface region leaks out and powers the solar wind, which is a sort of rain of particles that leave the star. Some of them hit the Earth’s magnetic field and can produce auroras. Most of the sun’s ultraviolet radiation also flows from the interface region.

IRIS’ images will be able to zero in on about 1 percent of the sun in a single go, with resolution of features of as small as 150 miles. The 400-pound satellite will orbit Earth in an orbit perpetually keeping it above the sunrise line, a spot that lets the satellite look at the sun continuously for eight months without the sun being obscured by Earth.

It’ll also form part of a larger network of sun-staring satellites.

Technicians work on NASA’s Interface Region Imaging Spectrograph (IRIS) in a "clean room", a specially designed facility intended to minimize contaminants on spacecraft before launch. Credit: Lockheed Martin
Technicians work on NASA’s Interface Region Imaging Spectrograph (IRIS) in a “clean room”, a specially designed facility intended to minimize contaminants on spacecraft before launch. Credit: Lockheed Martin

NASA highlighted its Solar Dynamics Observatory and a joint mission it has with Japan, called Hinode, which both take images of the sun in high-definition. These other two observatories, however, look at different solar layers (specifically, the surface and the outer atmosphere).

With IRIS joining the fleet and looking at the interface region, it will provide a more complete picture.

“Relating observations from IRIS to other solar observatories will open the door for crucial research into basic, unanswered questions about the corona,” stated Davila.

Source: NASA

Comet Lemmon, Now in STEREO

An icy interloper was in the sights of a NASA spacecraft this past weekend.

Comet 2012 F6 Lemmon passed through the field of view of NASA’s HI2A camera as seen from its solar observing STEREO Ahead spacecraft. As seen in the animation above put together by Robert Kaufman, Comet Lemmon is now displaying a fine ion and dust tail as it sweeps back out of the inner solar system on its 10,750 year plus orbit.

Comet Lemmon has been a dependable performer for southern hemisphere observers early in 2013. As we reported earlier this month for Universe Today, this comet is now becoming a binocular object low in the dawn sky for northern hemisphere astronomers.

Comet Lemmon passed perihelion at 0.73 astronomical units from the Sun on March 24th. It’s currently in the +4th to +5 magnitude range as it heads northward through the constellation Pisces.

NASA’s twin Solar TErrestrial RElations Observatory (STEREO) spacecraft often catch sungrazing comets as they observe the Sun. Known as STEREO A (Ahead) & STEREO B (Behind), these observatories are positioned in Earth leading and trailing orbits. This provides researchers with full 360 degree coverage of the Sun. Launched in 2006, STEREO also gives us a unique perspective to spy incoming sungrazing comets. Recently, STEREO also caught Comet 2011 L4 PanSTARRS and the Earth as the pair slid into view.

Another solar observing spacecraft, the European Space Agencies’ SOlar Heliospheric Observatory (SOHO) has been a prolific comet discoverer. Amateur comet sleuths often catch new Kreutz group sungrazers in the act. Thus far, SOHO has discovered over 2400 comets since its launch in 1995. SOHO won’t see PanSTARRS or Lemmon in its LASCO C3 camera but will catch a glimpse of Comet 2012 S1 ISON as it nears the Sun late this coming November.

Like SOHO and NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory, data from the twin STEREO spacecraft is available for daily perusal on their website. We first saw this past weekend’s animation of Comet Lemmon passing through STEREO’s field of view on the Yahoo STEREOHunters message board.

Here’s a cool but largely unrecognized fact about comets. As they move back out of the solar system, their dust tail streams out ahead of them, driven by the solar wind. I’ve even seen a few science fiction flicks get this wrong. We simply expect comets to always stream their tails out behind them!

Another observatory in our solar observing arsenal has also moved a little closer to operability recently. The Interface Region Imaging Spectrograph (IRIS) arrived at Vandenberg recently in preparation for launch this summer on June 26th. IRIS will be deployed from a Pegasus XL rocket carried aloft by an L-1011. NuSTAR was launched in a similar fashion in 2012. A Pegasus XL rocket will also launch the TESS exoplanet hunting satellite in 2017.

Keep an eye out for Comet Lemmon as it emerges from the dawn twilight in the days ahead. Also, be sure to post those pics to Universe Today’s Flickr community, and keep tabs on the sungrazing action provided to us by SOHO and STEREO!