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Rocket-launched camera reveals highways and sparkles in the solar atmosphere

Last Updated on Monday, 01 July 2013 10:15
Published on Sunday, 30 June 2013 23:01

Using an innovative new camera on board a sounding rocket, an international team of scientists have captured the sharpest images yet of the Sun's outer atmosphere. The team discovered fast-track 'highways' and intriguing 'sparkles' that may help answer a long-standing solar mystery. Prof. Robert Walsh of the University of Central Lancashire (UCLan) will present the new results on Monday 1 July at the RAS National Astronomy Meeting in St Andrews, Scotland.

With partners in the United States and Russia, the UCLan team used a sounding rocket to launch the NASA High Resolution Coronal Imager (Hi-C) from the White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico, USA. During its short flight, the Hi-C team obtained images of the solar atmosphere (the solar corona) five times sharper than anything seen before and acquired data at a rate of about one image every five seconds.

The new camera observed the Sun in extreme ultraviolet light and focused on a large, magnetically-active sunspot region. Images from Hi-C reveal a number of new features in the corona, including 'blobs' of gas ricocheting along 'highways' and bright dots that switch on and off rapidly which the group call 'sparkles'.

In the new images, small clumps of electrified gas (plasma) at a temperature of about one million degrees Celsius are seen racing along highways shaped by the Sun's magnetic field. These blobs travel at around 80 km per second (the equivalent of 235 times the speed of sound on Earth), fast enough to travel the distance from Glasgow to London in 7 seconds. The highways are 450 km across, roughly the length of Ireland from north to south.

The flows of material are inside a so-called solar filament, a region of dense plasma that can erupt outwards from the Sun. These eruptions, known as coronal mass ejections (CMEs), carry billions of tonnes of plasma into space. If a CME travels in the right direction it can interact with the Earth, disturbing the terrestrial magnetic field in a 'space weather' event that can have a range of destructive consequences from damaging satellite electronics to overloading power grids on the ground. The discovery and nature of the solar highways allows scientists to better understand the driving force for these eruptions and help predict with greater accuracy when CMEs might take place.

walsh hic nam movie web-poster smallAn image of an active, magnetically complicated region of the Sun captured by the new Hi-C instrument. It shows plasma in the outer solar atmosphere at a temperature of 1-2 million degrees Celsius. The inset box at bottom left shows 'sparkle' features that are releasing vast amounts of energy into the corona. The box at top right shows a close-up of part of a solar filament where 'blobs' of solar plasma flow along thread-like 'highway' structures. Credit: NASA MSFC and UCLan. Click for a larger imageAnother new set of images could help explain an enduring mystery of the Sun. Astronomers have long struggled to understand why, with a temperature of two million degrees, the corona is around 400 times hotter than the solar surface. Hi-C images reveal dynamic bright dots which switch on and off at high speed.

These 'sparkles' typically last around 25 seconds, are about 680 km across (the size of the UK) and release at least 1024 (one million million million million) Joules of energy in each event or around 10,000 times the annual energy consumption of the population of the UK (based on information from the UK Department of Energy and Climate Change). The sparkles are thus a clear signal that enormous amounts of energy are being added into the corona and may then be released violently to heat the plasma.

Solar physicist Professor Robert Walsh, UCLan's University Director of Research, added: "I'm incredibly proud of the work of my colleagues in developing Hi-C. The camera is effectively a microscope that lets us view small scale events on the Sun in unprecedented detail. For the first time we can unpick the detailed nature of the solar corona, helping us to predict when outbursts from this region might head towards the Earth."

NASA Marshall heliophysicist Dr Jonathan Cirtain, principal investigator for the Hi-C mission said: "Our team developed an exceptional instrument capable of revolutionary image resolution of the solar atmosphere. We took advantage of the high level of solar activity to focus in on an active sunspot and obtained these remarkable pictures."

 


Science contacts

Prof. Robert Walsh
University of Central Lancashire
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Dr Caroline Alexander
University of Central Lancashire
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Dr. Stephane Regnier
University of Central Lancashire
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Media contacts

Dr Robert Massey
Royal Astronomical Society
Mob: +44 (0)794 124 8035
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Anita Heward
Royal Astronomical Society
Mob: +44 (0)7756 034 243
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Ms Emma Shea
Head of Development Communications
University of St Andrews
Tel: +44 (0)1334 462 167
Mob: +44 (0)785 090 0352
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Chris Theobald
Press Office
University of Central Lancashire
Tel: +44 (0) 1772 894424
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Landline numbers in NAM 2013 press room (available from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. from 1-4 July, 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. 5 July):

Tel: +44 (0)1334 462231, +44 (0)1334 46 2232

An ISDN line is available for radio interviews. Please contact Emma Shea (see above) to request its use.

 


Image, movies and captions

Movies of solar highways and sparkles are available from

UCLan Youtube : http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ph0yLc2W3ZU

CAlexander webpage : http://www.star.uclan.ac.uk/~cea/hic_uclan.html

Caption: The ultra-high resolution images captured by NASA's Hi-C instrument (High-resolution Coronal Imager) have uncovered an amazing amount of detail within the hot outer atmosphere of the Sun (the corona).

Movie top right: "blobs" of electrified gas (plasma) racing along magnetic highways at strands with material moving along them at up to 80 km/s.

Movie bottom left: solar "sparkles" switching off and on in under 30 seconds, releasing energy into the solar corona.

 

A still from the movie is available at

https://www.ras.org.uk/images/stories/NAM2013/1July/walsh%20hic_nam_movie_web-poster.jpg

Caption: An image of an active, magnetically complicated region of the Sun captured by the new Hi-C instrument. It shows plasma in the outer solar atmosphere at a temperature of 1-2 million degrees Celsius. The inset box at bottom left shows 'sparkle' features that are releasing vast amounts of energy into the corona. The box at top right shows a close-up of part of a solar filament where 'blobs' of solar plasma flow along thread-like 'highway' structures. Credits: NASA MSFC and UCLan



Further information

The new work appears in:

"Anti-parallel EUV flows observed along active region filament threads with HiC", Caroline E. Alexander, Robert W. Walsh, Stephane Regnier, Jonathan Cirtain, Amy R. Winebarger, Leon Golub, Ken Kobayashi, Simon Platt, Nick Mitchell, Kelly Korreck, Bart DePontieu, Craig DeForest, Mark Weber, Alan Title, Sergey Kuzin. A copy of the submitted paper can be seen at http://uk.arxiv.org/abs/1306.5194

and

"Unveiling possible small-scale coronal heating events with Hi-C", S. R ́egnier, C. E. Alexander, R. W. Walsh, J. Cirtain, A. R. Winebarger, L. Golub, K. E. Korreck, N. Mitchell, S. Platt, M. Weber, B. De Pontieu, A. Title, K. Kobayashi, S. Kuzin, C. E. DeForest.

A copy of the submitted paper can be seen at http://www.star.uclan.ac.uk/~cea/hic_nam_movie_web/SRegnier_sparkles.pdf

Partners associated with the development of the Hi-C telescope include the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory in Cambridge, Mass.; L-3Com/Tinsley Laboratories in Richmond, California, USA; Lockheed Martin's Solar Astrophysical Laboratory in Palo Alto, California, USA; the University of Central Lancashire in Lancashire, UK; and the Lebedev Physical Institute of the Russian Academy of Sciences in Moscow.

The high-resolution images were made possible by a set of innovations on Hi-C's optics array.The telescope includes mirrors made at the Marshall Space Flight Center, in Huntsville, Alabama, USA, some of the finest mirrors ever made for space-based instrumentation. The Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics developed an innovative approach to mounting these mirrors to preserve the mirror resolution capability. UCLan provided the camera electronic box.

 


Notes for editors

Bringing together more than 600 astronomers and space scientists, the RAS National Astronomy Meeting (NAM 2013) will take place from 1-5 July 2013 at the University of St Andrews, Scotland. The conference is held in conjunction with the UK Solar Physics (UKSP: www.uksolphys.org) and Magnetosphere Ionosphere Solar Terrestrial (MIST: www.mist.ac.uk) meetings. NAM 2013 is principally sponsored by the RAS, STFC and the University of St Andrews and will form part of the ongoing programme to celebrate the University's 600th anniversary.

Meeting arrangements and a full and up to date schedule of the scientific programme can be found on the official website at http://www.nam2013.co.uk

The Royal Astronomical Society (RAS: www.ras.org.uk, Twitter: @royalastrosoc), founded in 1820, encourages and promotes the study of astronomy, solar-system science, geophysics and closely related branches of science. The RAS organises scientific meetings, publishes international research and review journals, recognizes outstanding achievements by the award of medals and prizes, maintains an extensive library, supports education through grants and outreach activities and represents UK astronomy nationally and internationally. Its more than 3500 members (Fellows), a third based overseas, include scientific researchers in universities, observatories and laboratories as well as historians of astronomy and others.

The Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC: www.stfc.ac.uk, Twitter: @stfc_matters) is keeping the UK at the forefront of international science and tackling some of the most significant challenges facing society such as meeting our future energy needs, monitoring and understanding climate change, and global security. The Council has a broad science portfolio and works with the academic and industrial communities to share its expertise in materials science, space and ground-based astronomy technologies, laser science, microelectronics, wafer scale manufacturing, particle and nuclear physics, alternative energy production, radio communications and radar. It enables UK researchers to access leading international science facilities for example in the area of astronomy, the European Southern Observatory.

Founded in the 15th century, St Andrews is Scotland's first university and the third oldest in the English speaking world. Teaching began in the community of St Andrews in 1410 and the University was formally constituted by the issue of Papal Bull in 1413. The University is now one of Europe's most research intensive seats of learning – over a quarter of its turnover comes from research grants and contracts. It is one of the top rated universities in Europe for research, teaching quality and student satisfaction and is consistently ranked among the UK's top five in leading independent league tables produced by The Times, The Guardian and the Sunday Times.

The University is currently celebrating its 600th anniversary and pursuing a £100 million fundraising campaign, launched by Patron and alumnus HRH Prince William Duke of Cambridge, including £4 million to fund the creation of an 'Other Worlds' Think Tank and Observatory. The new think tank and Observatory project will extend the University of St Andrews' flagship work on extra-solar planets, and provide a creative environment for problem-focused research, education and continuing public engagement.

For further information go to: www.st-andrews.ac.uk/600/