Scientists using the joint European Space Agency (ESA)/NASA Solar and Heliospheric Observatory (SOHO) spacecraft have discovered "jet streams" or "rivers" of hot, electrically charged gas called plasma flowing beneath the surface of the Sun. They also found features similar to trade winds that transport gas beneath the Sun's fiery surface.
These new findings will help them understand the famous sunspot cycle and associated increases in solar activity that can affect the Earth with power and communications disruptions. The observations are the latest made by the Solar Oscillations Investigation (SOI) group at Stanford University, CA, and they build on discoveries by the SOHO science team over the past year.
"We have detected motion similar to the weather patterns in the Earth's atmosphere", said Dr. Jesper Schou of Stanford. "Moreover, in what is a completely new discovery, we have found a jet-like flow near the poles. This flow is totally inside the Sun. It is completely unexpected, and cannot be seen at the surface."
"These polar streams are on a small scale, compared to the whole Sun, but they are still immense compared to atmospheric jet streams on the Earth", added Dr. Philip Scherrer, the SOI principal investigator at Stanford. "Ringing the Sun at about 75 degrees latitude, they consist of flattened oval regions about 30,000 kilometres across where material moves about ten percent (about 130 km/h) faster than its surroundings. Although these are the smallest structures yet observed inside the Sun, each is still large enough to engulf two Earths."
Additionally, there are features similar to the Earth's trade winds on the surface of the Sun. The Sun rotates much faster at the equator than at the poles. However, Stanford researchers Schou and Dr. Alexander G. Kosovichev have found that there are belts in the northern and southern hemispheres where currents flow at different speeds relative to each other. Six of these gaseous bands move slightly faster than the material surrounding them. The solar belts are more than 65 thousand km across and they contain "winds" that move about 15 kilometres per hour relative to their surroundings.
The first evidence of these belts was found more than a decade ago by Dr. Robert Howard of the Mount Wilson Observatory. The Stanford researchers have now shown that, rather than being superficial surface motion, the belts extend down to a depth of at least 20 thousand kilometres below the Sun's surface.
"In one way, the Sun's zonal belts behave more like the colourful banding found on Jupiter than the region of tradewinds on the Earth," said Stanford's Dr. Craig DeForest. "Somewhat like stripes on a barber pole, they start in the mid-latitudes and gradually move toward the equator during the eleven year solar cycle. They also appear to have a relationship to sunspot formation as sunspots tend to form at the edges of these zones".
"We speculate that the differences in speed of the plasma at the edge of these bands may be connected with the generation of the solar magnetic cycle; which, in turn, generates periodic increases in solar activity, but we'll need more observations to see if this is correct," said DeForest.
Finally, the solar physicists have determined that the entire outer layer of the Sun, to a depth of at least 25 thousand kilometres, is slowly but steadily flowing from the equator to the poles. The polar flow rate is relatively slow, about 80 km per hour, compared to its rotation speed, about 6.000 km/h; however, this is fast enough to transport an object from the equator to the pole in a bit more than a year.
"Oddly enough, the polar flow moves in the opposite direction from that of the sunspots and the zonal belts, which are moving from higher to lower latitudes," said DeForest.
Evidence for polar flow had previously been observed at the Sun's surface, but scientists did not know how deep the motion extended. With a volume equal to about four percent of the total Sun, this feature probably has an important impact on the Sun's activity, argue Stanford researchers Scherrer, with Dr. Thomas L. Duvall Jr., Dr. Richard S. Bogart, and graduate student Peter M. Giles.
For the last year, the SOHO spacecraft has been aiming its battery of 12 scientific instruments at the Sun from a position 1.5 million kilometres sunward from the Earth. The Stanford research team has been viewing the Sun's surface with one of these instruments called a Michelson Doppler Imager that can measure the vertical motion of the Sun's surface at one million different points once per minute. The measurements show the effects of sound waves that permeate the interior. The researchers then apply techniques similar to Earth based seismology and computer aided tomography to infer and map the flow patterns and temperature beneath the Sun's roiling surface.
"These techniques allow us to peer inside the Sun using sound waves, much like a doctor can look inside a pregnant woman with a sonogram," said Dr. Schou.
Currently, the Stanford scientists have both identified new structures in the interior of the Sun and clarified the form of previously discovered ones. Understanding their relationship to solar activity will require more observations and time for analysis.
"At this point, we do not know whether the plasma streams snake around like the jet stream on Earth, or whether it is a less dynamic feature," said Dr. Douglas Gough, of Cambridge University, UK. "It is intriguing to speculate that these streams may affect solar weather like the terrestrial jetstream impacts weather patterns on Earth, but this is completely unclear right now. The same speculation may apply to the other flows we've observed, or they may act in concert. It will be especially helpful to make observations as the Sun enters its next active cycle, expected to peak around the year 2001."
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