SDO’s Second Birthday, The Solar Tornado and The Approaching Solar Maximum in 2013…

“When Athol previewed this video to the office we were unanimously stunned, easily the video of the month. We set him to writing, chaining him to his desk. For your reading pleasure and visual stimulation we present NASA’s Solar Tornado and other interesting Solar facts”, Buddha’s Brother.

NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory – SDO – permanently keeps one eye open looking at the Sun, even on its second birthday. To celebrate two years of duty NASA has released incredible footage from our solar spy in the sky, the clearest footage ever captured of a Solar Tornado. Confirming the most unusual fact that the Sun also has Tornadoes, a little known phenomenon of galactic proportions.

Clearly visible in the video is a planet sized Tornado as large as the Earth. Held within multiple overlapping magnet fields the Tornado dances along the surface of the Sun, wind speeds of 500,000 kilometres per hour make this an amazingly massive and powerful storm.

TORNADO THE SIZE THE EARTH With 300,000 MPH Winds Spotted On The Sun!

The Sun, looking a little spotty.

One of the many subjects that SDO is tasked with studying is the nature of Solar weather and more specifically the solar cycle. By Mid-2011 they had already improved their understanding enough to make the long sought after prediction of when the Solar Maximum would peak. The Maximum represents a point in time when the Suns weather is at its most active and violent. This date has now been set to mid-2013 and SDO will be there ready to catch the show.

The Video
An SDO mission scientist explains “An active region rotating into view provides a bright backdrop to the gyrating streams of plasma. The particles are being pulled this way and that by competing magnetic forces. They are tracking along strands of magnetic field lines.”

NASA has released the Solar Tornado footage as part of SDO’s second birthday celebrations, having been launched on the 11th of February 2010. Launched as part of the ”Living With A Star’ program that see’s NASA using multiple Satellites and ground based instruments to study the Sun in an effort to understand how the Sun and Earth are connected, more specifically how the Sun’s weather effects life on Earth. SDO is currently on a five-year mission but with NASA budget cuts – re-alignments – there is every chance that SOHO’s mission will be extended, technically it could operate for as long as 20years.

n the video, cooler plasma material appears as darker spots on a bright background. The SDO spacecraft recorded the video in the extreme ultraviolet range of the light spectrum, giving the movie an eerie yellow hue. In this spectrum SDO is capturing features of the Sun’s weather in gas at 250,000 degrees C. Measurements reveal flows of around 150 kilometres per second, or 500,000 kilometres per hour.

SDO in the lab

The faint magnetic field lines of many prominences can be seen in the video, ghostly looking lines that overlap and twist, driving the tornado. The twisting magnet fields pull the highly charged magnetic particles in all directions till they collect and spin. The spinning tornado tracks along, caught between massive forces.

SDO is one hard working satellite too. As soon as it had been launched into orbit SDO started capturing amazing videos of the Sun’s torment, twisting magnetic fields of the emerging prominences, solar flares kicking out enormous amounts of solar particles and energy. SDO was even collecting Tornado footage for its own birthday party, cementing the fact that this is the James Brown of Solar Observes, the hardest working satellite in the business.

Solar Tornados
David Pike of the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory and Helen Mason of Cambridge University first discovered the Solar Tornado phenomenon in 1998 using data from the European Space Agency’s SOHO Solar and Heliospheric Observatory – satellite. SOHO had capture images of the phenomenon in 1998 and before that they had been theorized as possible. SDO’s footage however is the clearest and most dramatic example of a Solar Tornado so far.

Mercury also suffers from magnetic tornado’s. The Messenger space craft that has been sent to study the innermost planet has not only confirmed that Mercury has a magnetic field but that it’s magnetic field at times becomes twisted and generates similar but smaller magnetic tornadoes. In Mercury’s case the magnetic tornadoes are a destructive phenomenon, acting like a vacuum cleaner in reverse and pumping any atmosphere left into space.

Solar Maximum

Sunset on current solar cycle

One of the main subjects being studied by the collection of Solar observatory satellites including SDO is the timing for the next Solar Maximum which we are quickly approaching. The current cycle is known as Solar Cycle 24 and will peak during the Maximum, mid 2013. The Sun’s weather activity has long been known to operate in a cycle of high and low activity. This average length of the cycle is 11 years but it can stretch out to 13 years. Each cycle finishes with a bang, the Solar Maximum. During the Maximum huge amounts of energy and highly charged particles are blasted from the Sun.

While the Sun ejects huge amounts of energy and material during the Maximum it’s not typically a deadly phenomenon for life on Earth. It can cause havoc with communications though, as the high energy particles enter the atmosphere. Still it does also create the most amazing Aurora’s, lighting up the night skies in unusual places.

Solar Tornado’s, just the latest spectacular footage from the hardest working satellite in science. With 2 years flying by already we wonder what SDO will see next, what is our next lesson and did NASA get a cake to celebrate the occasion ?

Reference: SDO Highpants Article
Reference: Tornado discovery
Reference: NASA Mercury Tornado
Reference; NASA Solar Max