RICHMOND, Va. (WTVR) – A NASA spacecraft saw a huge tornado spinning on the Sun last September, and likely captured the first images filmed in high-resolution at multiple wavelengths . Click here to watch the video in Scott Pelley’s report on CBS. (Video courtesy NASA/Goddard/Li/University of Aberystwyth.)
NASA says the tornado stretched 124,000 miles tall as it was spinning 186,000 miles per hour! At that rate, it heated up to 3.5 million degrees Fahrenheit. These “tornadoes” on the Sun are actually called “solar prominences,” and have been a known about by astronomers for decades watching solar activity. Even though the prominences look like tornadoes we know on Earth, they form by an entirely different process. Solar tornadoes are magnetic spiral structures that form when huge injections of plasma from the Sun’s surface shoots upward. This charged, superheated gas travels “along the helical shape of the structure’s magnetic field, giving rise to a coherent rotation of material,” says Xing Li, an astronomer at Aberystwyth University in Wales, who co-authored the new study describing the observed vortex. Li also says, “It is a real gem of an event to fire the imagination—and it is a good way to study magnetic structures in the sun’s atmosphere.”
Sometimes these prominences erupt, firing huge chunks of charged particles away from the Sun into Space. These are called “coronal mass ejections,” or CMEs for short. When a CME is directed to Earth, it can interact with our own magnetosphere and produce spectacular auroras and potentially disrupt some of our surface- and space-based technology.
What remains a mystery to the scientists who studied this particular prominence is why a solar tornado of such magnitude did not erupt. “We do not understand yet why this particular event gave us such a spectacular show for several hours [but] did not erupt,” Li said. “Perhaps this is rare, but it’s perhaps the fact that most such structures are unstable and erupt as CMEs [that] is the reason we don’t usually see many solar tornadoes.”
These images and video from the solar-tornado research were presented during the 2012 National Astronomy Meeting in Manchester, England this week.