for National Geographic News
High magnetic activity makes the sun occasionally appear to have bigger "love handles," according to a new study that reveals the star's true shape.
Although the sun looks almost perfectly rounded to the naked eye, astronomers have known for decades that it is actually oblate, or slightly flattened at its poles and fatter in its middle.
But recent analysis of data from a NASA satellite called the Reuven Ramaty High-Energy Solar Spectroscopic Imager (RHESSI) showed that when the sun's magnetic activity is at a peak, the slight bulge in its "waist" increases significantly. The sun goes through a roughly 11-year cycle of activity levels.
(Related: "Sun's Power Hits New Low, May Endanger Earth?" [September 24, 2008].)
Measuring the sun's shape relies on detecting subtle features, and the odd increase in the equatorial bulge could be a misreading based on variations in brightness, according to the research team.
"So we invented a way to screen the data against this brightness effect" using extreme-ultraviolet images from the Solar and Heliospheric Observatory, study co-author Hugh Hudson, of the University of California, Berkeley, said in an email.
"The other and more exciting possibility is that there are 3-D structures in the upper photosphere that just stick up," Hudson told National Geographic News.
Though gaseous bodies such as the sun don't have actual surfaces like Earth's, the photosphere is an analogous region where the sun becomes opaque.
"In that case, the RHESSI would be seeing a real, if tiny, bulge."
As Flat as Predicted
The late Robert Dicke of Princeton University recorded the first modern measurements of the sun's shape in the 1960s.
His data showed that the sun was much more oblate than scientists would predict based on the star's surface rotation.
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