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Sunday, 8 July 2012

NASA hunts for the roots of solar flares.....

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Video above: The Sun has fired off a series of flares [1] - high energy radiation emissions, accompanied by fast moving clouds of ionised gas - this week. The biggest two happened yesterday, rating X 5.4 and X 1.3, and while the ionised gas clouds (Coronal Mass Ejections) are not on a direct course for Earth, we might just clip the edge of one later this week. No, this isn't the end of the world 'foretold' by the Mayans. But panic if you want, you'll just look a bit silly. Video courtesy of NASA.

There's been a lot of Sun and Sun-like star news this weekend, so here's a snippet on a little known space mission that flew on Thursday: The Solar Ultraviolet Magnetograph Investigation [2].

Image above: The structure of the Sun - or technically a very very well informed guess of it, since we can't see past the photosphere. The chromosphere is a tiny little thin bit, so imagine how hard it is to investigate! Image courtesy of

The mechanisms that accelerate particles in the Suns atmosphere, to nearly a percent of light speed in a Coronal Mass Ejection [3], are fairly unknown. But we do know a few things: It's down to the colossal ropes of magnetic field that tangle around the solar surface, and the particles seem to originate from a thin layer called the chromosphere. That's the part of the Sun that lies between the bottom of the Corona (the Suns atmosphere) and the the photosphere (its surface).

The magnetic field of the chromosphere are difficult to investigate: The best way of doing this is to examine the ultraviolet light emitted by two kinds of atoms, magnesium and carbon. But the ultraviolet light from the chromosphere is usually swamped by the brighter photosphere.

Which is where SUMI comes in. It has a unique set of optics [4], specifically designed to make investigations of the Solar magnetic field in the chromosphere, and the data collected will be used to build a three dimensional map pf the field in the chromosphere.....

....and even better, SUMI is only a baby version of the final instrument. It was launched into space on a sounding rocket, which  only stays in space for eight minutes or so. But that's long enough to see how the instrument performs, and take a bit of preliminary data.

Video above: The launch of a Black Brent suborbital rocket, similar to the one that carried SUMI Thursday. The rocket only stays in space for minutes, but that's long enough for many experiments. Video courtesy of NASA.

Based this test flight the engineers will then have a cup of coffee, argue with each other ....sorry, I'm an engineer by job at the moment. My view may be a little jaded.

Seriously, they will take what they've learned from this test flight, and produce a design for an instrument that will fly in space for months at a time at least. And that instrument may crack the mechanism that turns a bubble of gas in the Suns lower atmosphere into a raging storm of radiation tearing through space faster than most of us can imagine....

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