Scientists are trying to understand the precise details of what creates giant explosions in the sun's atmosphere, such as this solar eruption from Oct. 14, 2012, as seen by NASA's Solar Dynamic Observatory. Image Credit: NASA/SDO/Amari

Sun Eruption Image Helps Scientists Reveal Causes Behind Phenomenon

The sun witnesses the largest explosions or eruptions called coronal mass ejections – when billions of tons of solar material erupt off the sun, spewing into space and racing toward the very edges of the solar system.

These ejections, called CMEs, are caused by magnetic energy building up on the sun, which suddenly release but still the cause for the build up and release is not known.

A research paper in Nature magazine on Oct. 23, 2014, used data from NASA missions to present an example of how something called a magnetic flux rope builds up over time until it is so unstable that even the slightest perturbation will send it flying.

“We looked at a well-studied CME from 2006,” said Tahar Amari first author on the Nature paper at Ecole Polytechnique in France. “We knew that there had been a great deal of data available for this CME and much analysis already done, but no one had created a comprehensive picture of what happened.”

Amari and his colleagues used a traditional meteorology technique to examine the event: Gather observations from the days before the CME to track how the event grew over time. They used observations from the European Space Agency and NASA’s Solar and Heliospheric Observatory, or SOHO, and the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency and NASA’s Hinode, as well as from the Paris-Meudon Observatory.

Amari and his team used magnetic data from the surface obtained by Hinode, but they also needed magnetic data for the sun’s atmosphere, the corona, which is strongly affected by its magnetic field.

“The corona is so hot that most of the techniques to measure the magnetic field don’t work,” said Amari. “So we developed an efficient and accurate model to compute the magnetic field there, based on the data we had from the surface, and the equations governing the physics of the low corona above active regions.”

Amari points out that just because this CME contained a flux rope prior to eruption, it doesn’t mean that other CMEs can’t erupt based on other physical catalysts. But it clearly describes one mechanism that is at work on the sun.

By measuring and calculating the magnetic fields on the sun, coupled with determining how to measure the critical tipping point where a CME can erupt, the paper offers new ways to determine the possibility of eruption from any given active area on the sun.

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