Massive solar eruption sheds new light on star formation

June 22, 2013 by  
Filed under Solar Energy Tips

A little over a year ago, NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory witnessed an eruption from the sun that emitted bursts of hot plasma into space. During this phenomenon, some of the plasma was sucked back up by the gravitational pull of the Sun, helping scientists observe how young stars accrete the matter around them.

The event took place on June 2, 2011, and since space agency’s SDO spacecraft monitors the Sun constantly, it caught sight of hot plasma being hurtled into space. Yet, bright flashes and ultraviolet radiation indicated that some of the plasma was being swallowed back up by the Sun. Designed and developed by scientists at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (CfA), the spacecraft’s Atmospheric Imaging Assembly instrument was able to provide images of the event—better than any high-definition picture.

CfA Astronomer Paola Testa says that the images are giving researchers access to high spatial resolution and high cadence, which has never been viewed before. These snapshots are delivering a new perspective on how young stars grow.

“We often study young stars to learn about our Sun when it was an ‘infant.’ Now we’re doing the reverse and studying our Sun to better understand distant stars,” Testa said.

During the event documented last year, the plasma outbursts were estimated to reach a temperature of about 18,000 degrees Fahrenheit during the initial blast. On the other hand, when the plasma splashed back into the sun, the temperature rose by a factor of 100, resulting in temperatures reaching almost 2 million degrees Fahrenheit.

Part of the reason for these inconceivable temperatures is the speed that the plasma splashes back into the Sun. The falling blobs of plasma energy collide with the Sun at about 900,000 miles per hour. This is a vital piece of information for scientists learning about the accretion of young stars because younger stars suck in the matter around them at the same speed.

In fact, by observing brightness and the various wavelengths—and with a little help from computer modeling—researchers are able to obtain information on just how fast young stars gather material around them and how their brightness varies over time. The images collected during this time alluded to the idea that the falling plasma creates the ultraviolent flashes, not the surrounding solar atmosphere. If this observation is applied to the growth of young stars, then scientists will be able to gain a stronger understanding of the material being collected. Essentially, Testa breaks it down in layman’s terms and states that “by seeing the dark spots on the Sun, we can learn about how young stars accrete material and grow.”

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