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Solar moss shakes at 16,000 km an hour

Last Updated on Tuesday, 24 June 2014 12:44
Published on Friday, 20 June 2014 14:30

Using a state-of-the-art ultraviolet camera, two astronomers from Northumbria University have obtained exceptionally sharp images of 'solar Moss', bright features on the Sun that may hold the key to a longstanding mystery. Dr James McLaughlin will present their findings at the National Astronomy Meeting (NAM 2014) from 23-26 June in Portsmouth.

McLaughlin HiC FOV smallA High Resolution Coronal Imager (Hi-C) image of solar moss, as seen in Extreme Ultra-Violet light (a wavelength of 19.3 nm), where the observed material is at a temperature of between 1 and 2 million degrees Celsius. The region under observation is an area of high magnetic activity, with sunspots located underneath the coronal features. The moss structures are the brightest objects in the image and form the predominant component of the active region. However, the individual moss elements, with diameters of just 300 km, are relatively small compared to the size of the active region, which is around 300,000 km square. Credit: R. Morton / H. Morgan. Click for a full-size version (12MB).

The NASA-built High Resolution Coronal Imager (Hi-C) was first launched in July 2012 on a sounding rocket, operating for five minutes on its maiden flight. It observed the Sun at extreme ultraviolet wavelengths (far beyond the blue end of the visible spectrum) and in this light has produced the sharpest images of the outer atmosphere of the Sun - the corona - to date. Hi-C was designed to help scientists solve the longstanding mystery of why the tenuous corona (with a typical temperature of 2 million degrees Celsius) is so much hotter than the surface of the Sun beneath (typically 5500 degrees Celsius).

Hi-C's camera has five times the number of pixels as the latest generation of ultra-high definition (UHD) televisions. Images from it are sharp enough to allow the fundamental structures of the corona, which are strongly shaped by magnetic fields, to be resolved. During its flight, the camera was centred on a region where the magnetic field was particularly strong and where a phenomenon known as Moss is found. In the Hi-C images, the Moss appeared as some of the brightest features, forming net-like (reticulated) patches of emission.

The movie shows a 90,000 km squared region from the Hi-C Imager. The frames have been enhanced using a technique to bring out the small scale magnetic features. These features include the moss, which are the smallest and brightest structures seen in the image. The movie reveals that the moss is highly dynamic and constantly in motion. Careful observations of the moss reveal this motion is a violent swaying motion, moving with speeds close to 16,000 kilometres per hour (10,000 miles per hour). Credit: R. Morton / H. Morgan

Moss forms the lower sections of the hottest structures in the corona, the upper parts of which are invisible to the Hi-C camera as they predominantly emit X-rays. But studying its behaviour has allowed researchers to obtain key information on the underlying events that heat the corona. For example, there is significant evidence that the Sun's complex magnetic field, which pervades the entire solar atmosphere and provides the framework for its beautiful structures, plays a decisive role.

With his colleague Dr Richard Morton, Dr McLaughlin used the Hi-C data to measure the intrinsic properties of the Moss for the first time, discovering that its individual magnetic elements are highly dynamic; shaking back-and-forth at speeds of up to 16,000 kilometres (10,000 miles) per hour.

In the Hi-C images, a violent oscillating motion is seen, which can be interpreted in terms of swaying magnetic waves. Conceptually these are similar to those that are seen to move along a taut string or as an up-and-down wave on a rope. The magnetic waves are of great interest as they are particularly good at transporting energy along the magnetic structures and distributing it around the atmosphere of the Sun.

Dr McLaughlin said: "Our work shows that magnetic waves may play a key role in the heating of the corona. The short duration of the Hi-C data used in this pioneering study only gave us a tantalising glimpse of the hidden secrets of the Sun. They show the need for future instruments that will allow us to truly understand these intriguing phenomena."

 

Media contacts

NAM 2014 press office landlines: +44 (0) 02392 845176, +44 (0)2392 845177, +44 (0)2392 845178

Dr Robert Massey
Mob: +44 (0)794 124 8035
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Anita Heward
Mob: +44 (0)7756 034 243
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Dr Keith Smith
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An ISDN line is available for radio interviews. To request its use, please contact Sophie Hall via This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

 

Science contact

Dr James McLaughlin
Department of Mathematics and Information Sciences
Northumbria University
Mob: +44 (0)789 496 8232
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Image, animations and captions

https://www.ras.org.uk/images/stories/NAM/2014/McLaughlin_HiC_FOV_small.png and https://www.ras.org.uk/images/stories/NAM/2014/McLaughlin_HiC_FOV_big.png
A High Resolution Coronal Imager (Hi-C) image of solar moss, as seen in Extreme Ultra-Violet light (a wavelength of 19.3 nm), where the observed material is at a temperature of between 1 and 2 million degrees Celsius. The region under observation is an area of high magnetic activity, with sunspots located underneath the coronal features. The moss structures are the brightest objects in the image and form the predominant component of the active region. However, the individual moss elements, with diameters of just 300 km, are relatively small compared to the size of the active region, which is around 300,000 km square. Credit: R. Morton / H. Morgan

https://www.ras.org.uk/images/stories/NAM/2014/McLaughlin_extra_filt.mov
The movie shows a 90,000 km squared region from the Hi-C Imager. The frames have been enhanced using a technique to bring out the small scale magnetic features. These features include the moss, which are the smallest and brightest structures seen in the image. The movie reveals that the moss is highly dynamic and constantly in motion. Careful observations of the moss reveal this motion is a violent swaying motion, moving with speeds close to 16,000 kilometres per hour (10,000 miles per hour). Credit: R. Morton / H. Morgan

https://www.ras.org.uk/images/stories/NAM/2014/McLaughlin_science.mov
The movie shows a 100,000 km squared region from the Hi-C Imager, along with axes and time/dates stamp. The frames have been enhanced using a technique to bring out the small scale magnetic features. These features include the moss, which are the smallest and brightest structures seen in the image. The movie reveals that the moss is highly dynamic and constantly in motion. Careful observations of the moss reveal this motion is a violent swaying motion, moving with speeds close to 16,000 kilometres per hour (10,000 miles per hour). Credit: R. Morton / H. Morgan

 

Further information

The High resolution Coronal imager (Hi-C) instrument was a joint mission. MSFC/NASA led the mission and partners include the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory in Cambridge, Mass; Lockheed Martin's Solar Astrophysical Laboratory in Palo Alto, Calif; the University of Central Lancashire in Lancashire, UK; and the Lebedev Physical Institute of the Russian Academy of Sciences in Moscow.

Solar Magnetohydrodynamics research group at Northumbria University

 

Notes for editors

The RAS National Astronomy Meeting (NAM 2014) will bring together more than 600 astronomers, space scientists and solar physicists for a conference running from 23 to 26 June in Portsmouth. NAM 2014, the largest regular professional astronomy event in the UK, will be held in conjunction with the UK Solar Physics (UKSP), Magnetosphere Ionosphere Solar-Terrestrial physics (MIST) and UK Cosmology (UKCosmo) meetings. The conference is principally sponsored by the Royal Astronomical Society (RAS), the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC) and the University of Portsmouth. Meeting arrangements and a full and up to date schedule of the scientific programme can be found on the official website and via Twitter

The University of Portsmouth is a top-ranking university in a student-friendly waterfront city. It's in the top 50 universities in the UK, in The Guardian University Guide League Table 2014 and is ranked in the top 400 universities in the world, in the most recent Times Higher Education World University Rankings 2013. Research at the University of Portsmouth is varied and wide ranging, from pure science – such as the evolution of galaxies and the study of stem cells – to the most technologically applied subjects – such as computer games design. Our researchers collaborate with colleagues worldwide, and with the public, to develop new insights and make a difference to people's lives. Follow the University of Portsmouth on Twitter.

The Royal Astronomical Society (RAS), 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 3800 members (Fellows), a third based overseas, include scientific researchers in universities, observatories and laboratories as well as historians of astronomy and others. Follow the RAS on Twitter.

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