Giant "Tornadoes" Seen Erupting From the Sun

Richard A. Lovett
for National Geographic News
June 3, 2008

The sun produces giant tornado-like jets that stretch thousands of miles into space, new satellite data shows.

The solar tornadoes typically last about ten minutes and occur near the sun's poles.

"These solar tornadoes are almost a thousand times faster than a terrestrial tornado and are very big," said Spiros Patsourakos, a researcher at George Mason University.

Scientists have known since the 1990s that jets of gas wider than North America were erupting from the sun's poles, but it is only now that they discovered these jets are rotating.

That's because a new pair of NASA satellites called STEREO allowed the features to be observed from two directions at once, revealing their three-dimensional structures.

"The main element [of the new observations] is that the erupting structures possess twist," said Patsourakos, who described his findings last week at an American Geophysical Union meeting in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.

(See striking images of the sun.)

Magnetic Field

That twist comes from the sun's magnetic field, said Etienne Pariat, also of George Mason University.

"The magnetic field lines act like a spring, which expands and jumps outward," said Pariat, who has used computer simulations to model the forces producing the jets.

The forces originate in the solar interior, he added, where the sun's rotation twists the magnetic field.

Continued on Next Page >>


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