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SYFY WIRE Bad Astronomy

Desktop Project Part 21: Dancing in the dark filaments

By Phil Plait

[My Desktop Project -- clearing off the cool astropix from my computer's desktop by posting one each day -- is getting close to being done soon; I'm down to my last few pictures!]

It's funny how different the Sun looks at different wavelengths of light. In visible light, you can see all sorts of surface features like sunspots, granules (rising and falling packets of gas convecting like a pot of water on a stovetop), and more.

But when you have eyes sensitive to the ultraviolet, the Sun takes on an entirely new appearance. That's where the effects of the Sun's active and crazy magnetic field claim dominion, and you see vast arcs, loops, and towers of incredibly hot plasma. To be fair, you can see this in visible light too, but it's not quite so... dynamic. Cue NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory, and its UV detectors:

This image was taken by SDO on March 28, 2012, and shows the limb of the Sun at a wavelength of 19.3 nanometers -- well into the UV. What you're seeing is plasma -- gas so energetic it's had electrons ripped right off its atoms, putting it under the sway of the Sun's fierce magnetism. The plasma flows along the magnetic field lines, arcing high off the surface into space before coming back down.

Usually, those arcs are hot and bright, like the tight loops you can see on the left (within hours, those loops got bigger and brighter, making dozens of well-defined glowing coils). But you can also see a dark arc in the center, going from just below the center of this picture, curving to the upper left, then heading up and over to the right, off the face of the Sun. For some reason, the plasma there wasn't quite as hot, and so instead of glowing at this wavelength it appears dark, absorbing the light from material behind it.

I took this shot using -- if you click the picture it will take you there. You can then play with the controls on the left and watch this dark filament change, grow, dance, and playfully flow from one arc base to the other. It's mesmerizing. SDO has a page with some pre-made animations, too.

I love how we see the Sun pretty much every day, but in many ways it is as unfamiliar as any distant star. Happily, though, our drive to explore and understand has led us to the point where we can investigate our nearest star, and learn more about it. Given that it's the main driver of life on Earth, this is probably a smart idea.

Image credit: NASA/SDO/

Related Posts:

- Desktop Project Part 8: From filament to prominence
- The Sunâs angry red spot
- HUGE sunspots turning toward Earth
- The comet and the Coronal Mass Ejection

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