Staring At The Sun
But Not For Too Long
What you see in the picture is not a flower, but a sunspot, close up. Very close up. The scale shown on the full size image indicates a bar that spans 10 million meters, or about 6,100 miles. For comparison, the Earth’s diameter is about 8,000 miles. What’s causing those flares, filiments and tongues of fire? Why, magnetic fields, of course.
But you knew that. You see, at the temperature of the Sun’s surface it’s hot enough (about 5,000 deg. K.) that electrons don’t stay tied to the nucleus of hydrogen (and some helium) very long, and go flying off. That leaves a lot of naked, electrically charged stuff floating around for magnetic fields to play with, and boy, do they have a good time wallowing in all that plazma.
In the just-released image above, the interface between a sunspot’s umbra (dark center) and penumbra (lighter outer region) shows a complex structure with narrow, almost horizontal (lighter to white) filaments embedded in a background having a more vertical (darker to black) magnetic field. Farther out, extended patches of horizontal field dominate. For the first time, scientists have modeled this complex structure in a comprehensive 3D computer simulation, giving scientists their first glimpse below the visible surface.
It’s good to know about the inner workings of the Sun, and sunspots are the portal through which we can study the sun’s interior. Why should we bother? There are two very good reasons.
Sunspots are the most striking surface manifestations of solar magnetism, and they are associated with massive ejections of charged plasma that can cause geomagnetic storms and disrupt communications and navigational systems. They also contribute to variations in overall solar output, which can affect weather on Earth and exert a subtle (and as-yet deciphered) influence on climate patterns.
A quote from Matthias Rempel, a scientist at NCAR’s High Altitude Observatory:
“If you want to understand all the drivers of Earth’s atmospheric system, you have to understand how sunspots emerge and evolve. Our simulations will advance research into the inner workings of the Sun as well as connections between solar output and Earth’s atmosphere.”
That’s the best reason.