The Sun sparkles like a diamond in images from the new solar space observatory SOHO. Short, hair-like jets of strong emission decorate the Sun's atmosphere to an extent not clearly seen before. Recorded by the Extreme Ultraviolet Imaging Telescope EIT aboard SOHO, these "spicules" of various kinds tell of energetic upheavals that may be responsible for heating the outer atmosphere to more than two million degrees C. Also visible in the ultraviolet images are plumes like ropes, stretching far into space from the north and south poles of the Sun.
SOHO's scientists are impressed by the vigorous action that they see going on every day, because the Sun is in the very quietest phase of its eleven-year cycle of activity. To ground-based observatories it appears extremely calm just now.
The early indications of SOHO's performance amply justify the creation of a sungazing spacecraft capable of observing ultraviolet emissions that are blotted out by the Earth's atmosphere. Apart from the imager, two ultraviolet spectrometers and an ultraviolet coronagraph (an imager for the outer atmosphere) are busy analysing the violent processes at a wide range of wavelengths. Between them, these instruments should cure long-lasting ignorance concerning the Sun, especially about why the atmosphere is so hot and what drives the solar wind that blows non-stop into the Solar System.
Scientists from other experimental teams use SOHO to explore the Sun from its deep interior to the far reaches of the solar wind. They have watched the supposedly quiet Sun belching huge masses of gas into space. They have mapped a hole burnt by the solar wind in a breeze of gas coming from the stars. And they have detected currents of gas flowing just below the visible surface.
SOHO is a project of international cooperation between the European Space Agency and NASA. The spacecraft was built in Europe and instrumented by scientists on both sides of the Atlantic. NASA launched SOHO on 2 December 1995, and also provides the ground stations and an operations centre near Washington. The first results are the more remarkable because SOHO arrived at its vantage point 1,500,000 kilometres out in space only in February, and formally completed its commissioning on 16 April. It has a long life ahead of it.
All scientific instruments are working well. The luminosity oscillation imager belonging to the VIRGO experiment had trouble with its lens cover. When opened, the cover rebounded on its hinges and closed again. Commands were devised that gave a shorter impulse to the opening mechanism. Communicated to SOHO in March, the new commands cured the problem. The cover stayed open and the imager is now fully functional.
Organizing a mass ejection
Images obtained with SOHO's visible-light coronagraph LASCO show the Sun releasing billions of tonnes of gas into the Solar System in a coronal mass ejection. Such events disturb the whole Solar System and can affect the Earth's own space environment. Although the Sun is relatively very quiet, outbursts have been recorded by LASCO on two occasions since the instrument began operating. Repeated observations over several hours, made from SOHO's vantage point in space where the Sun never sets, result in impressive movies of the events.
The corona is the scientists' term for the solar atmosphere, and the coronagraph masks the glaring light from the Sun's visible surface to make the corona observable. LASCO has a particularly wide field of view, out to fifteen times the Sun's diameter on either side. But it is a composite instrument, able also to observe the atmosphere quite close to the solar surface. This capability is already helping the scientists to interpret the mechanisms of the coronal mass ejections.
The leader of the LASCO team, Guenter Brueckner of the US Naval Research Laboratory in Washington DC, has made space observations of the Sun for many years. He is therefore well placed to judge the value of SOHO's results so far.
"I believe that for the first time we can see the Sun preparing itself for a mass ejection," Brueckner says. "In the days preceding such an event, multiple magnetic loops appear in our images of the inner corona. They tell us that the Sun is reorganizing its magnetic field. We want to confirm that this destabilizes the solar atmosphere and causes the mass ejection. Then we should be able to give advance warning of outbursts from the Sun which endanger low-flying satellites, and can harm power distribution systems on the Earth."
The hole in the interstellar breeze
One instrument in SOHO avoids looking at the Sun, because it would be dazzled. Instead, SWAN surveys the sky all around and sees an ultraviolet glow from hydrogen atoms lit by the Sun. These atoms come on a breeze from the stars that blows through the Solar System. But the competing wind of charged particles from the Sun breaks the incoming atoms, so that they no longer emit their characteristic wavelength. The result is a hole in the pattern of emissions downstream from the Sun.
The surviving emissions are brightest upstream, and far above the plane of the Sun's equator. The scientists conclude that the solar wind blowing from high-latitude regions of Sun is less strong, at least during the present quiet phase of the eleven-year cycle of activity.
The Earth is also visible in the maps, because a cloud of hydrogen gas called the geocorona envelops it and glows in the ultraviolet. The geocorona would hamper observations of the interstellar glow by satellites close to the Earth. SOHO sees the geocorona from the outside, and will be able to monitor effects of solar activity on the Earth's outer atmosphere.
"At the present time of a quiet Sun, our sky maps clearly indicate a situation of increased solar wind around the Sun's equator," says Jean-Loup Bertaux of the Service d'Aéronomie near Paris, who has prime responsibility for SWAN. "We are anxious to see what will happen when the Sun becomes stormier. Then we shall see important changes in the solar wind's impact on the interstellar gas, revealed by the changes in the sky maps. Meanwhile we use alternate days for special investigations, and at present we are tracking Comet Hyakutake as it approaches the Sun. When colleagues ask me why a solar spacecraft should look at comets, I remind them that the solar wind was discovered by studying comet tails."
Sub-surface currents mapped
SOHO is successfully probing the Sun's interior. It does so with several instruments that observe oscillations of the Sun's surface. They detect rhythmic variations in the intensity of light or in its wavelength. The oscillations are caused by sound waves reverberating through the Sun. Just as seismology reveals the Earth's interior by studying earthquake waves, so helioseismology looks behind the Sun's enigmatic face.
The helioseismologists of SOHO are delighted by their early results. They expected to benefit from a steady platform in space, where they can observe the Sun without interruption by clouds or sunsets, but what has gratified them is the clarity of the signals. Background noise previously blamed on the Sun turns out to have been due to the Earth's atmosphere. As a result SOHO gains a further advantage over ground-based stations.
SOHO's oscillations imager MDI observes a million points on the Sun's visible surface once a minute. It can detect subtle, short-range oscillations due to sound waves penetrating only a short distance into the Sun. And it has generated the first chart of horizontal motions of gases just below the visible surface.
"What pleases us is that shallow flows can be observed," says Philip Scherrer of Stanford University, California, who is principal investigator for MDI. "Ground-based instruments have detected motions deep inside the Sun. With SOHO we can do that too, but now we also provide the missing link to motions at the visible surface. Soon we shall make the first movies of the Sun's interior. And by relating what we see there to our measurements of surface magnetic fields we may begin to solve the mystery of why dark sunspots occur, and why they become most numerous every eleven years or so."
Towards the solar maximum
Observations at the present quiet phase of the solar cycle, when sunspots are scarce, provide an excellent baseline for later investigation of stormier and more confused conditions. These will occur around the year 2000 as the Sun enters its phase of maximum activity. Then the appearance of the Sun will change in SOHO's instruments, as the magnetic field contorts and rearranges itself, sunspots multiply and huge explosions become commonplace.
"Everyone is impressed by SOHO's performance," says Roger Bonnet, the European Space Agency's Director of Science. "By the end of the mission we shall know the Sun far better than we do now. Then we shall understand the stars better too, because the Sun is the star we see with most clarity. And we shall be able to comment with much more confidence on important but puzzling aspects of solar behaviour that affect our lives on the Earth, whether in short-lived magnetic storms or long-lasting changes of climate."