Giant twists clue to solar riddle

Scientists have made a breakthrough in understanding why the Sun’s atmosphere is much hotter than its surface. For the first time, they have detected giant, twisting waves of magnetism spreading upwards at more than 12 miles per second.

The Swedish Solar TelescopeThe discovery is set to help reveal how explosive activity on the Sun affects the climate here on Earth.

Astronomers have long been puzzled because the Sun’s temperature is “only” around 6,000° C on its visible surface.

Yet this soars to well over a million degrees in the solar atmosphere – the ghostly corona that we see surrounding the Sun in a total eclipse.

The massive solar twists, known as Alfven waves, were discovered by a team led by scientists at Queen’s University, Belfast.

Professor Mihalis Mathioudakis, leader of Belfast’s solar group, said: “Understanding solar activity and its influence on the Earth’s climate is of paramount importance for human kind.

“The solar corona is a very dynamic environment which can erupt suddenly, releasing more energy than 10 billion atomic bombs. Our study makes a major advancement in the understanding of how the million-degree corona manages to achieve this feat.”

The British astronomers, working with colleagues from Sheffield and California, used the Swedish Solar Telescope on La Palma in the Canary Islands to discover the waves. Another team has previously mapped the Sun’s corona in 3D.

The latest observations – described as equivalent to reading the time on London’s Big Ben from Tokyo – are reported this week in the journal Science.

Picture: A photo of the Swedish Solar Telescope on La Palma by Tim van Werkhoven.

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Paul Sutherland

Paul Sutherland

I have been a professional journalist for nearly 40 years. I write regularly for science magazines including BBC Sky at Night magazine, BBC Focus, Astronomy Now and Popular Astronomy. I have also authored three books on astronomy and contributed to others.
Paul Sutherland

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Paul Sutherland

I have been a professional journalist for nearly 40 years. I write regularly for science magazines including BBC Sky at Night magazine, BBC Focus, Astronomy Now and Popular Astronomy. I have also authored three books on astronomy and contributed to others.

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