Forum for Science, Industry and Business

Sponsored by:     3M 
Search our Site:

 

Tiny "Nanoflares" Might Heat the Sun's Corona

17.10.2014

Why is the Sun's million-degree corona, or outermost atmosphere, so much hotter than the Sun's surface?

Why is the Sun's million-degree corona, or outermost atmosphere, so much hotter than the Sun's surface? This question has baffled astronomers for decades. Today, a team led by Paola Testa of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (CfA) is presenting new clues to the mystery of coronal heating using observations from the recently launched Interface Region Imaging Spectrograph (IRIS). The team finds that miniature solar flares called "nanoflares" - and the speedy electrons they produce - might partly be the source of that heat, at least in some of the hottest parts of the Sun's corona.


This image from the Interface Region Imaging Spectrograph (IRIS) shows emission from hot plasma (T ~ 80,000-100,000 K) in the Sun's transition region - the atmospheric layer between the surface and the outer corona. The bright, C-shaped feature at upper center shows brightening in the footprints of hot coronal loops, which is created by high-energy electrons accelerated by nanoflares. The vertical dark line corresponds to the slit of the spectrograph. The image is color-coded to show light at a wavelength of 1,400 Angstroms. The size of each pixel corresponds to about 120 km (75 miles) on the Sun.

NASA/IRIS

A solar flare occurs when a patch of the Sun brightens dramatically at all wavelengths of light. During flares, solar plasma is heated to tens of millions of degrees in a matter of seconds or minutes. Flares also can accelerate electrons (and protons) from the solar plasma to a large fraction of the speed of light. These high-energy electrons can have a significant impact when they reach Earth, causing spectacular aurorae but also disrupting communications, affecting GPS signals, and damaging power grids.

Those speedy electrons also can be generated by scaled-down versions of flares called nanoflares, which are about a billion times less energetic than regular solar flares. "These nanoflares, as well as the energetic particles possibly associated with them, are difficult to study because we can't observe them directly," says Testa.

Testa and her colleagues have found that IRIS provides a new way to observe the telltale signs of nanoflares by looking at the footpoints of coronal loops. As the name suggests, coronal loops are loops of hot plasma that extend from the Sun's surface out into the corona and glow brightly in ultraviolet and X-rays.

IRIS does not observe the hottest coronal plasma in these loops, which can reach temperatures of several million degrees. Instead, it detects the ultraviolet emission from the cooler plasma (~18,000 to 180,000 degrees Fahrenheit) at their footpoints. Even if IRIS can't observe the coronal heating events directly, it reveals the traces of those events when they show up as short-lived, small-scale brightenings at the footpoints of the loops.

The team inferred the presence of high-energy electrons using IRIS high-resolution ultraviolet imaging and spectroscopic observations of those footpoint brightenings. Using computer simulations, they modeled the response of the plasma confined in loops to the energy transported by energetic electrons. The simulations revealed that energy likely was deposited by electrons traveling at about 20 percent of the speed of light.

The high spatial, temporal, and spectral resolution of IRIS was crucial to the discovery. IRIS can resolve solar features only 150 miles in size, has a temporal resolution of a few seconds, and has a spectral resolution capable of measuring plasma flows of a few miles per second.

Finding high-energy electrons that aren't associated with large flares suggests that the solar corona is, at least partly, heated by nanoflares. The new observations, combined with computer modeling, also help astronomers to understand how electrons are accelerated to such high speeds and energies - a process that plays a major role in a wide range of astrophysical phenomena from cosmic rays to supernova remnants. These findings also indicate that nanoflares are powerful, natural particle accelerators despite having energies about a billion times lower than large solar flares.

"As usual for science, this work opens up an entirely new set of questions. For example, how frequent are nanoflares? How common are energetic particles in the non-flaring corona? How different are the physical processes at work in these nanoflares compared to larger flares?" says Testa.

The paper reporting this research is part of a special issue of the journal Science focusing on IRIS discoveries.
Headquartered in Cambridge, Mass., the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (CfA) is a joint collaboration between the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory and the Harvard College Observatory. CfA scientists, organized into six research divisions, study the origin, evolution and ultimate fate of the universe.
For more information, contact:

David A. Aguilar
Director of Public Affairs
Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics
617-495-7462
daguilar@cfa.harvard.edu

Christine Pulliam
Public Affairs Specialist
Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics
617-495-7463
cpulliam@cfa.harvard.edu

Christine Pulliam | Eurek Alert!
Further information:
http://www.cfa.harvard.edu/news/2014-26

More articles from Physics and Astronomy:

nachricht X-ray photoelectron spectroscopy under real ambient pressure conditions
28.06.2017 | National Institutes of Natural Sciences

nachricht New photoacoustic technique detects gases at parts-per-quadrillion level
28.06.2017 | Brown University

All articles from Physics and Astronomy >>>

The most recent press releases about innovation >>>

Die letzten 5 Focus-News des innovations-reports im Überblick:

Im Focus: Can we see monkeys from space? Emerging technologies to map biodiversity

An international team of scientists has proposed a new multi-disciplinary approach in which an array of new technologies will allow us to map biodiversity and the risks that wildlife is facing at the scale of whole landscapes. The findings are published in Nature Ecology and Evolution. This international research is led by the Kunming Institute of Zoology from China, University of East Anglia, University of Leicester and the Leibniz Institute for Zoo and Wildlife Research.

Using a combination of satellite and ground data, the team proposes that it is now possible to map biodiversity with an accuracy that has not been previously...

Im Focus: Climate satellite: Tracking methane with robust laser technology

Heatwaves in the Arctic, longer periods of vegetation in Europe, severe floods in West Africa – starting in 2021, scientists want to explore the emissions of the greenhouse gas methane with the German-French satellite MERLIN. This is made possible by a new robust laser system of the Fraunhofer Institute for Laser Technology ILT in Aachen, which achieves unprecedented measurement accuracy.

Methane is primarily the result of the decomposition of organic matter. The gas has a 25 times greater warming potential than carbon dioxide, but is not as...

Im Focus: How protons move through a fuel cell

Hydrogen is regarded as the energy source of the future: It is produced with solar power and can be used to generate heat and electricity in fuel cells. Empa researchers have now succeeded in decoding the movement of hydrogen ions in crystals – a key step towards more efficient energy conversion in the hydrogen industry of tomorrow.

As charge carriers, electrons and ions play the leading role in electrochemical energy storage devices and converters such as batteries and fuel cells. Proton...

Im Focus: A unique data centre for cosmological simulations

Scientists from the Excellence Cluster Universe at the Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität Munich have establised "Cosmowebportal", a unique data centre for cosmological simulations located at the Leibniz Supercomputing Centre (LRZ) of the Bavarian Academy of Sciences. The complete results of a series of large hydrodynamical cosmological simulations are available, with data volumes typically exceeding several hundred terabytes. Scientists worldwide can interactively explore these complex simulations via a web interface and directly access the results.

With current telescopes, scientists can observe our Universe’s galaxies and galaxy clusters and their distribution along an invisible cosmic web. From the...

Im Focus: Scientists develop molecular thermometer for contactless measurement using infrared light

Temperature measurements possible even on the smallest scale / Molecular ruby for use in material sciences, biology, and medicine

Chemists at Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz (JGU) in cooperation with researchers of the German Federal Institute for Materials Research and Testing (BAM)...

All Focus news of the innovation-report >>>

Anzeige

Anzeige

Event News

Plants are networkers

19.06.2017 | Event News

Digital Survival Training for Executives

13.06.2017 | Event News

Global Learning Council Summit 2017

13.06.2017 | Event News

 
Latest News

Supersensitive through quantum entanglement

28.06.2017 | Physics and Astronomy

X-ray photoelectron spectroscopy under real ambient pressure conditions

28.06.2017 | Physics and Astronomy

Mice provide insight into genetics of autism spectrum disorders

28.06.2017 | Health and Medicine

VideoLinks
B2B-VideoLinks
More VideoLinks >>>