Discover the most talked about and latest scientific content & concepts.

Concept: Photosphere


Solar flares signify the sudden release of magnetic energy and are sources of so called space weather. The fine structures (below 500 km) of flares are rarely observed and are accessible to only a few instruments world-wide. Here we present observation of a solar flare using exceptionally high resolution images from the 1.6 m New Solar Telescope (NST) equipped with high order adaptive optics at Big Bear Solar Observatory (BBSO). The observation reveals the process of the flare in unprecedented detail, including the flare ribbon propagating across the sunspots, coronal rain (made of condensing plasma) streaming down along the post-flare loops, and the chromosphere’s response to the impact of coronal rain, showing fine-scale brightenings at the footpoints of the falling plasma. Taking advantage of the resolving power of the NST, we measure the cross-sectional widths of flare ribbons, post-flare loops and footpoint brighenings, which generally lie in the range of 80-200 km, well below the resolution of most current instruments used for flare studies. Confining the scale of such fine structure provides an essential piece of information in modeling the energy transport mechanism of flares, which is an important issue in solar and plasma physics.

Concepts: Sun, Solar wind, Solar flare, Corona, Photosphere, Aurora, Plasma physics, Ionosphere


Through reduction of a huge data set spanning 2010-2017, we compare mean global changes in temperature, emission measure (EM), and underlying photospheric magnetic field of the solar corona over most of the last activity cycle. The quiet coronal mean temperature rises from 1.4 to 1.8 MK, whereas EM increases by almost a factor of 50% from solar minimum to maximum. An increased high-temperature component near 3 MK at solar maximum drives the increase in quiet coronal mean temperature, whereas the bulk of the plasma remains near 1.6 MK throughout the cycle. The mean, spatially smoothed magnitude of the quiet Sun magnetic field rises from 1.6 G in 2011 to peak at 2.0 G in 2015. Active region conditions are highly variable, but their mean remains approximately constant over the cycle, although there is a consistent decrease in active region high-temperature emission (near 3 MK) between the peak of solar maximum and present. Active region mean temperature, EM, and magnetic field magnitude are highly correlated. Correlation between sunspot/active region area and quiet coronal conditions shows the important influence of decaying sunspots in driving global changes, although we find no appreciable delay between changes in active region area and quiet Sun magnetic field strength. The hot coronal contribution to extreme ultraviolet (EUV) irradiance is dominated by the quiet corona throughout most of the cycle, whereas the high variability is driven by active regions. Solar EUV irradiance cannot be predicted accurately by sunspot index alone, highlighting the need for continued measurements.

Concepts: Sun, Plasma, Solar flare, Sunspot, Corona, Photosphere, Solar cycle, Solar eclipse


Superflares are large explosive events on stellar surfaces one to six orders-of-magnitude larger than the largest flares observed on the Sun throughout the space age. Due to the huge amount of energy released in these superflares, it has been speculated if the underlying mechanism is the same as for solar flares, which are caused by magnetic reconnection in the solar corona. Here, we analyse observations made with the LAMOST telescope of 5,648 solar-like stars, including 48 superflare stars. These observations show that superflare stars are generally characterized by larger chromospheric emissions than other stars, including the Sun. However, superflare stars with activity levels lower than, or comparable to, the Sun do exist, suggesting that solar flares and superflares most likely share the same origin. The very large ensemble of solar-like stars included in this study enables detailed and robust estimates of the relation between chromospheric activity and the occurrence of superflares.

Concepts: Sun, Solar wind, Solar flare, Corona, Chromosphere, Photosphere, Plasma physics, Solar eclipse


Convection plays a major part in many astrophysical processes, including energy transport, pulsation, dynamos and winds on evolved stars, in dust clouds and on brown dwarfs. Most of our knowledge about stellar convection has come from studying the Sun: about two million convective cells with typical sizes of around 2,000 kilometres across are present on the surface of the Sun-a phenomenon known as granulation. But on the surfaces of giant and supergiant stars there should be only a few large (several tens of thousands of times larger than those on the Sun) convective cells, owing to low surface gravity. Deriving the characteristic properties of convection (such as granule size and contrast) for the most evolved giant and supergiant stars is challenging because their photospheres are obscured by dust, which partially masks the convective patterns. These properties can be inferred from geometric model fitting, but this indirect method does not provide information about the physical origin of the convective cells. Here we report interferometric images of the surface of the evolved giant star π1 Gruis, of spectral type S5,7. Our images show a nearly circular, dust-free atmosphere, which is very compact and only weakly affected by molecular opacity. We find that the stellar surface has a complex convective pattern with an average intensity contrast of 12 per cent, which increases towards shorter wavelengths. We derive a characteristic horizontal granule size of about 1.2 × 1011 metres, which corresponds to 27 per cent of the diameter of the star. Our measurements fall along the scaling relations between granule size, effective temperature and surface gravity that are predicted by simulations of stellar surface convection.

Concepts: Sun, Carbon, Star, Photosphere, Red giant, Giant star, Stellar classification, Supergiant


Solar flares are caused by the sudden release of magnetic energy stored near sunspots. They release 10(29) to 10(32) ergs of energy on a timescale of hours. Similar flares have been observed on many stars, with larger ‘superflares’ seen on a variety of stars, some of which are rapidly rotating and some of which are of ordinary solar type. The small number of superflares observed on solar-type stars has hitherto precluded a detailed study of them. Here we report observations of 365 superflares, including some from slowly rotating solar-type stars, from about 83,000 stars observed over 120 days. Quasi-periodic brightness modulations observed in the solar-type stars suggest that they have much larger starspots than does the Sun. The maximum energy of the flare is not correlated with the stellar rotation period, but the data suggest that superflares occur more frequently on rapidly rotating stars. It has been proposed that hot Jupiters may be important in the generation of superflares on solar-type stars, but none have been discovered around the stars that we have studied, indicating that hot Jupiters associated with superflares are rare.

Concepts: Energy, Sun, Star, Solar wind, Solar flare, Sunspot, Corona, Photosphere


Heating the outer layers of the magnetically quiet solar atmosphere to more than one million kelvin and accelerating the solar wind requires an energy flux of approximately 100 to 300 watts per square metre, but how this energy is transferred and dissipated there is a puzzle and several alternative solutions have been proposed. Braiding and twisting of magnetic field structures, which is caused by the convective flows at the solar surface, was suggested as an efficient mechanism for atmospheric heating. Convectively driven vortex flows that harbour magnetic fields are observed to be abundant in the photosphere (the visible surface of the Sun). Recently, corresponding swirling motions have been discovered in the chromosphere, the atmospheric layer sandwiched between the photosphere and the corona. Here we report the imprints of these chromospheric swirls in the transition region and low corona, and identify them as observational signatures of rapidly rotating magnetic structures. These ubiquitous structures, which resemble super-tornadoes under solar conditions, reach from the convection zone into the upper solar atmosphere and provide an alternative mechanism for channelling energy from the lower into the upper solar atmosphere.

Concepts: Earth, Sun, Star, Solar wind, Solar flare, Corona, Chromosphere, Photosphere


As the interface between the Sun’s photosphere and corona, the chromosphere and transition region play a key role in the formation and acceleration of the solar wind. Observations from the Interface Region Imaging Spectrograph reveal the prevalence of intermittent small-scale jets with speeds of 80 to 250 kilometers per second from the narrow bright network lanes of this interface region. These jets have lifetimes of 20 to 80 seconds and widths of ≤300 kilometers. They originate from small-scale bright regions, often preceded by footpoint brightenings and accompanied by transverse waves with amplitudes of ~20 kilometers per second. Many jets reach temperatures of at least ~10(5) kelvin and constitute an important element of the transition region structures. They are likely an intermittent but persistent source of mass and energy for the solar wind.

Concepts: Light, Sun, Solar flare, Corona, Chromosphere, Photosphere, Solar and Heliospheric Observatory, Solar transition region


It is now apparent that there are at least two heating mechanisms in the Sun’s outer atmosphere, or corona. Wave heating may be the prevalent mechanism in quiet solar periods and may contribute to heating the corona to 1,500,000 K (refs 1-3). The active corona needs additional heating to reach 2,000,000-4,000,000 K; this heat has been theoretically proposed to come from the reconnection and unravelling of magnetic ‘braids’. Evidence favouring that process has been inferred, but has not been generally accepted because observations are sparse and, in general, the braided magnetic strands that are thought to have an angular width of about 0.2 arc seconds have not been resolved. Fine-scale braiding has been seen in the chromosphere but not, until now, in the corona. Here we report observations, at a resolution of 0.2 arc seconds, of magnetic braids in a coronal active region that are reconnecting, relaxing and dissipating sufficient energy to heat the structures to about 4,000,000 K. Although our 5-minute observations cannot unambiguously identify the field reconnection and subsequent relaxation as the dominant heating mechanism throughout active regions, the energy available from the observed field relaxation in our example is ample for the observed heating.

Concepts: Sun, Solar flare, Sunspot, Corona, Photosphere, Solar cycle, Plasma physics, Solar eclipse


The abrupt motion of the photospheric flux during a solar flare is thought to be a back reaction caused by the coronal field reconfiguration. However, the type of motion pattern and the physical mechanism responsible for the back reaction has been uncertain. Here we show that the direction of a sunspot’s rotation is reversed during an X1.6 flare using observations from the Helioseismic and Magnetic Imager. A magnetic field extrapolation model shows that the corresponding coronal magnetic field shrinks with increasing magnetic twist density. This suggests that the abrupt reversal of rotation in the sunspot may be driven by a Lorentz torque that is produced by the gradient of twist density from the solar corona to the solar interior. These results support the view that the abrupt reversal in the rotation of the sunspot is a dynamic process responding to shrinkage of the coronal magnetic field during the flare.

Concepts: Magnetic field, Sun, Solar wind, Solar flare, Sunspot, Corona, Photosphere, Solar cycle


Solar flares stem from the reconnection of twisted magnetic field lines in the solar photosphere. The energy and waiting time distributions of these events follow complex patterns that have been carefully considered in the past and that bear some resemblance with earthquakes and stockmarkets. Here we explore in detail the tangling motion of interacting flux tubes anchored in the plasma and the energy ejections resulting when they recombine. The mechanism for energy accumulation and release in the flow is reminiscent of self-organized criticality. From this model, we suggest the origin for two important and widely studied properties of solar flare statistics, including the time-energy correlations. We first propose that the scale-free energy distribution of solar flares is largely due to the twist exerted by the vorticity of the turbulent photosphere. Second, the long-range temporal and time-energy correlations appear to arise from the tube-tube interactions. The agreement with satellite measurements is encouraging.

Concepts: Magnetic field, Sun, Solar wind, Solar flare, Corona, Photosphere, Aurora, Magnetic reconnection