Astronomers Capture Images of Massive Solar Tornado
April 2, 2012

Astronomers Capture Images of Massive Solar Tornado

A NASA satellite has captured images of a solar tornado that is said to be five times as wide as Earth and one of the largest such structures ever discovered on our sun, astronomers revealed during the National Astronomy Meeting in Manchester, England, on Friday.

According to CNET Senior Writer Martin LaMonica, a video of the solar twister, which was recorded last September by a telescope equipped to the US space agency's Solar Dynamic Observatory (SDO) satellite, was presented during the conference by scientists from Aberystwyth University in Wales.

"Solar tornadoes occur when super-heated gases get sucked up from sun and spiral towards its atmosphere," LaMonica said, adding that experts from the university noted that, "along the way, these gases, traveling at about 185,000 miles per hour, drag magnetic fields and electric currents into the high atmosphere."

"These tornadoes often happen at the root of a coronal mass ejection, when a portion of the sun's atmosphere breaks off and hurtles through space. It's the release of these high-energy particles from sun that causes solar storms, which on Earth can disrupt satellites and even the electrical grid," he added.

According to Andrew Fazekas of National Geographic News, the tornado -- officially known as a solar prominence -- was large enough to consume one hundred planets the size of the Earth. He added that this particular prominence is most likely "the first to be filmed in high-resolution at multiple wavelengths."

In a March 29 press release, the university reports that the film was presented by Dr. Xing Li and Dr. Huw Morgan of the Aberystwyth University's Institute of Mathematics and Physics.

They also noted that the solar tornado itself was discovered by the SDO's Atmospheric Imaging Assembly (AIA) telescope, and that the AIA was able to detect superheated gases with temperatures of up to 2,000,000 Kelvin, travelling at speeds upwards of 300,000 km/hour.

"The structure is huge ... and the velocity of the material is several tens to hundreds of thousands of kilometers per hour," Dr. Xing Li told Fazekas. "It is a real gem of an event to fire the imagination -- and it is a good way to study magnetic structures in the sun's atmosphere."

"This unique and spectacular tornado must play a role in triggering global solar storms," Dr. Huw Morgan added as part of the university's statement, which also said that the satellite, which was launched in February 2010, is currently orbiting our planet in a circular, geosynchronous orbit at an altitude of 36,000km.