Solar Tsunami


The SOHO spacecraft has recorded the effect
of all this rising energy. Its ultraviolet sensors show a wavy pattern of gas on the
sun’s surface, along with the super-hot halo of gas called the corona. The white regions are places where the rising
gas suddenly escapes. Immense loops of ionized gas, ten times the
diameter of Earth, rise and fall back. These solar prominences are hot, about 60,000 degrees
Celsius. But there are times when the release of energy
on the solar surface gets bottled up, by magnetic fields generated by the sun’s spinning turbulent
core. Using data from the sun’s exterior, scientists
have modeled these fields as they erupt all around the sun’s surface, twisting and looping. Heat rising toward the surface follows these
magnetic field lines, which can also stifle the rising columns, forming relatively cool
patches. That’s where sunspots form. Four centuries
ago, Galileo Galilei was the first to argue that these blotches were actually on the Sun’s
surface, though he suspected they were clouds. Their nature remained unclear until 1908,
when the astronomer George Ellery Hale demonstrated the link between sunspots and intense magnetic
fields. Over the years, scientists have drawn their
strange shapes in an effort to understand them. What they didn’t see, until recently, was
the heat and pressure building around them. Using data from the Solar and Heliospheric
Observatory, SOHO, scientists are learning to read undulations on the surface of the
sun, the result of pressure waves ricocheting through its volume. Like the study of earthquakes on Earth, this
field, called Heliosiesmology, is a window on the movements of gas inside the sun. It’s
also generating predictions of flares and sunspots, including those forming on the far
side. Detectors aboard the SOHO spacecraft have
managed to catch the moment when the energy capped by a sunspot is suddenly released. A shock wave travels rapidly outward, like
a solar tsunami, with enough force to circle the star. That signals the start of a coronal mass ejection,
or CME, a massive eruption of particles and hot gas. With a coronagraph to block out the bright
light of the sun, you can see how violent our sun can get. If a CME is detected blasting out from behind
this artificial eclipse, you know that satellites and power systems on Earth are going to get
hit hard, especially if it has been launched in the direction of where Earth will be in
its orbit in about 24 to 36 hours. The sun sends a wave of energetic particles
that will crash into Earth’s magnetic field. And as more and more of the ground around
Earth gets carpeted with conductive metal, the chances are that all that juice will “fry”
something vital to humanity.

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