Researches Film Biggest Solar Tornado Yet

(Image: NASA/SDO/AIA/Aberystwyth University/Li/Morgan/Leonard via Discovery News)

For the first time, researchers have managed to catch a solar “tornado” — more scientifically known as solar prominences — on film. It is large enough to swallow a hundred Earths, according to National Geographic, and is one of many that could be influencing solar storms that send radiation toward Earth.

Watch the footage released at National Astronomy Meeting on Thursday:

National Geographic reports that these tornado-like events on the surface of the sun are nothing new — they’ve been observed for decades, but this latest one is supposedly the biggest yet:

“The structure is huge … and the velocity of the material is several tens to hundreds of thousands of kilometers per hour,” said Xing Li, an astronomer at Aberystwyth University in Wales, who co-authored a new study describing the vortex.

“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.”

What starts these solar events, according to Discovery News, is not entirely clear, but researchers hope studying what they’ve filmed will give some insight into their origins and how they could influence coronal mass ejections:

“Prominences are tangled magnetic fields trapping cold and dense plasma in the solar corona,” Li [...] told Discovery News. “These often erupt spectacularly and fly out into space as coronal mass ejections (CMEs), and large CMEs will impact our space weather and space technology in a significant way when they are heading toward the Earth.

Li hypothesizes that the tornadoes may produce the conditions favorable for CMEs to occur. Co-author Huw Morga said spotting these storms could help predict CMEs.

(Related: Strongest solar storm in years bombarding Earth with radiation)

Even though some of the tornadoes are huge — the one spotted on Sept. 25, 2011, was about 120,000 miles wide and traveled up to 190,000 miles per hour — Discovery News reports they are harder for researchers to see than you might imagine:

Firstly, as they are magnetic structures, if the tornado is empty of radiating plasma, they will remain invisible. Only when hot plasma is being dragged high into the corona can they be seen. Conversely, should the tornado be completely flooded with plasma, you wouldn’t see the motion of the material as the radiating plasma would be completely washed out.

Li highlights the need for discrete objects inside the swirling mass so they can be tracked as they move around the tornado. He likens this to the dust and bits of debris that a terrestrial tornado would pick up. Without these objects, we couldn’t “see” the spinning wind currents. The same goes for solar tornadoes; discrete “blobs” of plasma can be tracked as they are accelerated and carried high into the corona by the tornado’s magnetic field.

“Also, we believe that the angle you view the tornado from is important,” Li added. “For example, if you imagine the slinky structure mentioned above, if you view it from the side it may not appear so clearly as a tornado.”

The magnetic tornadoes were spotted by NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory.