Amazing Sunspot Image from New Solar Telescope

The most detailed sunspot ever obtained in visible light was seen by new telescope at NJIT's Big Bear Solar Observatory. Credit: Big Bear Solar Observatory

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A new type of adaptive optics for solar observations has produced some incredible results, providing the most detailed image of a sunspot ever obtained in visible light. A new telescope built by the New Jersey Institute of Technology’s Big Bear Solar Observatory has seen its ‘first light’ using a deformable mirror, which is able to reduce atmospheric distortions. This is the first facility-class solar observatory built in more than a generation in the U.S.

The New Solar Telescope (NST) is located in the mountains east of Los Angeles. It has 97 actuators that make up the deformable mirror. By the summer of 2011, in collaboration with the National Solar Observatory, BBSO will have upgraded the current adaptive optics system to one utilizing a 349 actuator deformable mirror. The telescope has a 1.6 m clear aperture, with a resolution covering about 50 miles on the Sun’s surface.

The NST will be the pathfinder for an even larger ground-based telescope, the Advanced Technology Solar Telescope to be built over the next decade. Philip R. Goode from NJIT is leading a partnership with the National Solar Observatory (NSO) to develop a new and more sophisticated kind of adaptive optics, known as multi-conjugate adaptive optics. This new optical system will allow the researchers to increase the distortion-free field of view to allow for better ways to study these larger and puzzling areas of the Sun, and a 4-meter aperture telescope will be built in the next decade.

Source: NJIT

New Citizen Science Opportunity: Solar Storm Watch

A Coronal Mass Ejection. Credit: Solar Storm Watch

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Sun-worshiper alert! Now you can have the chance to help scientists spot and track solar storms and be involved in the latest solar research. The ‘hottest’ new Citizen Science project from the “Zooniverse” is Solar Storm Watch. Volunteers can spot storms and track their progress as they hurtle across space towards our planet. Your “clicks” and input will help solar scientists better understand these potentially dangerous storms and help to forecast their arrival time at Earth. “The more people looking at our data, the more discoveries we will make,” said Dr. Chris Davis, Project Scientist with the STEREO mission. “We encourage everyone to track these spectacular storms through space. These storms are a potential radiation hazard for spacecraft and astronauts alike and together we hope to provide advanced warning of their arrival at Earth.”

Solar Storm Watch has been in Beta testing for about two months, but is now officially open for business. “It’s been wonderful to watch the team get ready for a flood of data,” said Chris Lintott, one of the founders of the original Galaxy Zoo, and now Zooniverse — new citizen science projects that that use the Galaxy Zoo model — of which Solar Storm Watch is a part. ” I’m sure there are discoveries there already.”

“I’ve been sitting at my desk watching the results roll in and there are plenty of CMEs that just need a few more clicks,” said Arfon Smith from Oxford University, one of the developers of Zooniverse, who has helped solar astronomers at the Royal Observatory in Greenwich integrate their science projects into the Galaxy Zoo model.

STEREO spacecraft. Credit: NASA

The project uses real data from NASA’s STEREO spacecraft, a pair of satellites in orbit around the Sun which give scientists a constant eye on the ever-changing solar surface. STEREO’s two wide-field instruments, the Heliospheric Imagers provide Solar Stormwatch with its data. Each imager has two cameras helping STEREO stare across the 150 million kilometers from the Earth to the Sun.

“The Solar Stormwatch website has a game-like feel without losing any of the science,” said Julia Wilkinson, Solar Stormwatch volunteer. “I can click away identifying features and watch solar storms head towards Earth on the video clips and learn about solar science at the same time. It’s fun, it’s addictive, it’s educational and you get to contribute to real astronomy research without being an expert in astrophysics … The fact that any Solar Stormwatch volunteer could make a brand new discovery about our neighboring star is very cool indeed. All you need is a computer and an interest in finding out more about what the sun is really like. Solar astronomy has never been easier!”

Solar Storm Watch has made their project very interactive with social media, as you can share your discoveries on the user forum and Flickr, as well as follow the space weather forecast on Twitter. SSW also has a blog to shre the latest news and challenges.

To participate, go to the Solar Storm Watch website. You can get a “Mission Briefing”, or watch informative videos on why the solar science community needs you!

Sources: Royal Observatory, Zooniverse

Measuring the Coronal Temperature with Iron

This image of the solar corona contains a color overlay of the emission from highly ionized iron lines and white light taken of the 2008 eclipse. Red indicates iron line Fe XI 789.2 nm, blue represents iron line Fe XIII 1074.7 nm, and green shows iron line Fe XIV 530.3 nm. This is the first such map of the 2-D distribution of coronal electron temperature and ion charge state. Credit: Habbal, et al.

Astronomers presenting at this week’s AAS conference have reported on new research measuring the temperature of the solar corona. The work combines observations of the Sun’s outer reaches from observations during total solar eclipses in 2006, 2008, and 2009. It utilized mapping of various abundances of ionized iron to build a two dimensional temperature map.

Although many introductory science classes paint temperature as a fixed number, in reality, it’s the average of a range of temperatures which is a way of quantifying the kinetic energy of the particles in question. Individual particles may be hotter (higher kinetic energy) while others may be cooler (lower kinetic energy). As these atoms move around, they can collide and these collisions will knock off electrons causing the atoms to become ionized. The degree of ionization will be indicative of just how energetic the collision was.

Those ionized atoms can then be identified spectroscopically or by using a filter to search for the wavelength at which those atoms will emit light as new electrons settle down into the previously vacated orbitals. By measuring the relative amounts of ionization astronomers can then reconstruct the range of kinetic energies in the gas and thus, temperature range which can, in turn, be used to determine the average temperature.

This is the method an international team of astronomers used to study the sun’s corona. Since light atoms don’t work well for this method (they become fully ionized or just can’t show a large range of ionization like atoms with more electrons), the astronomers chose to study the Sun’s corona through various states of iron ionization. In doing so they mapped several ionization states, including capturing for the first time, the elusive Fe IX lines (iron with 8 electrons knocked off) at 789.2 nm.

One interesting finding was that the region of emission extended to three solar radii (or 1.5 times the diameter). After this distance, the collision rate drops off and can no longer cause the ionization of atoms (however, radiative processes caused by photons from the sun can still ionize the atoms, but this is no longer indicative of the temperature of the atoms). This was further than originally anticipated.

Another result of their work showed that there is a strong correspondence between the amounts of various ions coming from the sun and that same ratio in interplanetary space as measured by the SWICS on the Advanced Composition Explorer. This connection will better help astronomers understand the working of our Sun as well as how its emissions may impact the Earth.

The full results of this work are to be published in the January 10 issue of the Astrophysical Journal.