Super-Tornadoes 1,000 Miles Wide Heat the Sun's Atmosphere

By Chelsea Whyte on June 28, 2012 11:09 PM EDT

space tornado
Enormous solar tornadoes draw heat from the sun's core into its atmosphere. (Photo: Wedemeyer-Böhm et al (2012))

The trick to the sun's immense heat may lie in thousands of tornados that cover the star at any moment. An international team of solar researchers discovered 14 of these supersized tornados that may be the reason the sun's atmosphere is 300 times hotter than its surface.

"You'd expect the sun's temperature to decrease outwards, but that's just not the case," said lead author and astrophysicist Wedemeyer-Böhm, according to National Geographic. "Something has to transport heat energy there," he added. 

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These tornados are the transporters.

"It is understood that the energy originates from below the Sun's surface, but how this massive amount of energy travels up to the solar atmosphere surrounding it is a mystery. We believe we have found evidence in the form of rotating magnetic structures - solar tornadoes - that channel the necessary energy in the form of magnetic waves to heat the magnetised solar plasma," said Professor Robertus Erdélyi, head of the Solar Physics and Space Plasma Research Centre of the University of Sheffield.

He and an international team of scientists compared images from the Swedish Solar Telescope with others taken by NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory, and found that swirls in the chromosphere - a layer between the sun's surface and atmosphere - corresponded with bright points on the surface and atmosphere.

The team calculated that about 11,000 of the swirling plasma twisters, each over 1,000 miles wide, are active above the surface at one time.  

Unlike their earthly counterparts, these tornados are made up of a combination of hot flowing gas and tangled magnetic field lines, driven by nuclear reactions at the core of the sun.

At the surface, or photosphere, cooled plasma sinks toward the interior like water running down the bathtub drain, creating vortexes that magnetic field lines are forced to follow. The lines stretch upward into the chromosphere, where they continue to spiral, according to MSNBC.

These twisters spin at thousands of miles per hour and some extend all the way up the corona, the upper atmosphere of the sun.

"If we understand how nature heats up magnetised plasmas, like in the tornadoes observed in the Sun, one day we may be able to use this process to develop the necessary technology and build devices on Earth that produce free, clean, green energy," said Erdélyi. "Because of our collaborative research it looks an essential leap forward is made towards unveiling the secrets about a great and exciting problem in plasma-astrophysics and we are getting closer and closer to find a solution."

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