Tech UPTechnologySurf waves in the sun

Surf waves in the sun

surf-solThanks toSDO space telescope(Solar Dynamics Observatory) scientists have discoveredwaves with the same shape as those that delight surfers moving through the Sun’s atmosphere, the so-called solar corona. These waves offer clues about how energy moves in the star and could help solve a permanent mystery: why the corona is thousands of times hotter than expected.

“One of the main questions about the solar corona is the heating mechanism,” explains solar physicist Leon Ofman, from NASA Goddard Space Flight Center. “The corona is more than a thousand times hotter than the visible surface of the sun, but the mechanism that heats up is not well understood. It has been suggested that the waves could cause turbulence causing that heating, but now we have direct evidence ofexistence of Kelvin-Helmholtz waves“, Add.

That there are “surfer” waves in the sun is not necessarily a surprise, since they appear in other places in nature, such as clouds on Earth or between the bands of Saturn. But looking at the gigantic surface of the sun it is not easy to physically see details like this. Only the resolution available with SDO has made it possible. “The waves that we see in these images are very small,” says Thompson, who in addition to being a co-author of this work is an associate scientist for the SDO project. “They are only the size of the United States,” he laughs.

TheKelvin-Helmholtz instabilityoccurs whentwo liquids of different flow densities or different speeds interact. In the case of ocean waves, it is dense water and lighter air. As the flow of one strikes another, small ripples can rapidly amplify and give rise to the giant waves loved by surfers. In the case of the solar atmosphere, formed by a very hot and electrically charged gas called plasma, the fluxes come from the extension of an eruption from the surface of the sun as it passes through the plasma that is not erupting. Thedifference in flow rates and densityacross this border generates the instability thatproduces the waves.

To confirm this description, the team developed a computer model to see what is happening in the region. Their model shows that these conditions could indeed lead to giant surf waves rolling down the crown. Ofman says that despite the fact that Kelvin-Helmholtz instability has been seen elsewhere, there was no guarantee that it would occur in the solar corona, because it is permeated with magnetic fields. “I was not sure that this instability could evolve in the sun, since magnetic fields can have a stabilizing effect,” he says. “We now know that this instability can appear even though the solar plasma is magnetized.”

Scientists believe that the friction created by turbulence – the rolling of this material on and around itself – could help add heating energy to the corona. Ofman and his colleagues discovered the waves in images taken on April 8, 2010. The results of the research are now published inThe Astrophysical Journal Letters.

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