Understanding the New Solar System


By Editors of Scientific American

Formats and Prices




$11.99 CAD


ebook (Digital original)


ebook (Digital original) $8.99 $11.99 CAD

This item is a preorder. Your payment method will be charged immediately, and the product is expected to ship on or around December 2, 2002. This date is subject to change due to shipping delays beyond our control.

This volume reveals the latest knowledge of the composition and nature of our solar family. Here you’ll discover what lies beyond the orbit of Pluto, which solar body is the most volcanically active, and which solar system bodies have atmospheres and may harbour primitive life.


SOHO Reveals the
Secrets of the Sun

Kenneth R. Lang

From afar, the sun does not look very complex. To the casual observer, it is just a smooth, uniform ball of gas. Close inspection, however, shows that the star is in constant turmoil—a fact that fuels many fundamental mysteries. For instance, scientists do not understand how the sun generates its magnetic fields, which are responsible for most solar activity, including unpredictable explosions that cause magnetic storms and power blackouts here on the earth. Nor do they know why this magnetism is concentrated into so-called sunspots, dark islands on the sun's surface that are as large as the earth and thousands of times more magnetic. Furthermore, physicists cannot explain why the sun's magnetic activity varies dramatically, waning and intensifying again every 11 years or so.

To solve such puzzles—and better predict the sun's impact on our planet—the European Space Agency and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) launched the two-ton Solar and Heliospheric Observatory (SOHO, for short) on December 2, 1995. The spacecraft reached its permanent strategic position—which is called the inner Lagrangian point and is about 1 percent of the way to the sun—on February 14, 1996. There SOHO is balanced between the pull of the earth's gravity and the sun's gravity and so orbits the sun together with the earth. Earlier spacecraft studying the sun orbited the earth, which would regularly obstruct their view. In contrast, SOHO monitors the sun continuously: 12 instruments examine the sun in unprecedented detail. They downlink several thousand images a day through NASA's Deep Space Network antennae to SOHO's Experimenters' Operations Facility at the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md.

At the Experimenters' Operations Facility, solar physicists from around the world work together, watching the sun night and day from a room without windows. Many of the unique images they receive move nearly instantaneously to the SOHO home page on the World Wide Web ( http://sohowww.nascom.nasa.gov). When these pictures first began to arrive, the sun was at the very bottom of its 11-year activity cycle. But SOHO carries enough fuel to continue operating for a decade or more. Thus, it will keep watch over the sun through all its tempestuous seasons. Already, though, SOHO has offered some astounding findings.

Exploring Unseen Depths

To understand the sun's cycles, we must look deep inside the star, to where its magnetism is generated. One way to explore these unseen depths is by tracing the in-and-out, heaving motions of the sun's outermost visible surface, named the photosphere from the Greek word photos, meaning "light." These oscillations, which can be tens of kilometers high and travel a few hundred meters per second, arise from sounds that course through the solar interior. The sounds are trapped inside the sun; they cannot propagate through the near vacuum of space. (Even if they could reach the earth, they are too low for human hearing.) Nevertheless, when these sounds strike the sun's surface and rebound back down, they disturb the gases there, causing them to rise and fall, slowly and rhythmically, within a period of about five minutes.

The throbbing motions these sounds create are imperceptible to the naked eye, but SOHO instruments routinely pick them out. Two devices, the Michelson Doppler Imager (MDI) and the Global Oscillations at Low Frequencies (GOLF), detect surface oscillation speeds with remarkable precision—to better than one millimeter per second. A third device tracks another change the sound waves cause: as these vibrations interfere with gases in light-emitting regions of the sun, the entire orb flickers like a giant strobe. SOHO's Variability of solar IRradiance and Gravity Oscillations (VIRGO) device records these intensity changes, which are but minute fractions of the sun's average brightness.

The surface oscillations are the combined effect of about 10 million separate notes—each of which has a unique path of propagation and samples a well-defined section inside the sun. So to trace the star's physical landscape all the way through—from its churning convection zone, the outer 28.7 percent (by radius), into its radiative zone and core—we must determine the precise pitch of all the notes.

The dominant factor affecting each sound is its speed, which in turn depends on the temperature and composition of the solar regions through which it passes. SOHO scientists compute the expected sound speed using a numerical model. They then use relatively small discrepancies between their computer calculations and the observed sound speed to fine-tune the model and establish the sun's radial variation in temperature, density and composition.

At present, theoretical expectations and observations made with the MDI telescope are in close agreement, showing a maximum difference of only 0.2 percent. Where these discrepancies occur is, in fact, significant. They suggest that material is mixing at the boundary of the energy-generating core and also just below the convection zone.

The sun resonates with sound waves. They are produced by hot gas churning in the convection zone sandwiched between the sun's core and its surface. Acoustic waves traveling out toward the surface are reflected back toward the core. The core, in turn, reflects the waves back toward the surface.

For more than three centuries, astronomers have known from watching sunspots that the photosphere rotates faster at the equator than at higher latitudes and that the speed decreases evenly toward each pole. SOHO data confirm that this differential pattern persists through the convection zone. Furthermore, the rotation speed becomes uniform from pole to pole about a third of the way down. Thus, the rotation velocity changes sharply at the base of the convection zone. There the outer parts of the radiative interior, which rotates at one speed, meet the overlying convection zone, which spins faster in its equatorial middle. We now suspect that this thin base layer of rotational shear may be the source of the sun's magnetism.

The MDI telescope on board SOHO has also helped probe the sun's outer shells. Because its lenses are positioned well above the earth's obscuring atmosphere, it can continuously resolve fine detail that cannot always be seen from the ground. For this reason, it has proved particularly useful in time-distance helioseismology, a new technique for revealing the motion of gases just below the photosphere. The method is quite straightforward: the telescope records small periodic changes in the wavelength of light emitted from a million points across the sun every minute. By keeping track of them, it is possible to determine how long it takes for sound waves to skim through the sun's outer layers. This travel time tells of both the temperature and gas flows along the internal path connecting two points on the visible solar surface. If the local temperature is high, sound waves move more quickly—as they do if they travel with the flow of gas.

The MDI has provided travel times for sounds crossing thousands of paths, linking myriad surface points. And SOHO scientists have used these data to chart the three-dimensional internal structure and dynamics of the sun, much in the same way that a computed tomographic (CT) scan creates an image of the inside of the brain. They fed the SOHO data to supercomputers to work out temperatures and flow directions along these intersecting paths. After a solid week of number crunching, the machines generated the first maps showing convective flow velocities inside a star. These flows are not global motions, such as rotations, but rather small-scale ones that seem to be independent of one another. Even so, their speed reaches one kilometer per second—which is faster than a supersonic jet airplane.

To get a look at these flows diving down through the convection zone, the MDI team computed travel times for sounds moving some 8,000 kilometers down into the sun. The researchers found that, as expected, this tumultuous region resembles a pot of boiling water: hot material rises through it, and cooler gases sink. Many of these flows are, however, unexpectedly shallow. The team also investigated horizontal motions at a depth of about 1,400 kilometers and compared them with an overlying magnetic image, also taken by the MDI instrument. They found that strong magnetic concentrations tend to lie in regions where the subsurface gas flow converges. Thus, the churning gas probably forces magnetic fields together and concentrates them, thereby overcoming the outward magnetic pressure that ought to make such localized concentrations expand and disperse.

SOHO is also helping scientists explain the solar atmosphere, or corona. The sun's sharp outer rim is illusory. It merely marks the level beyond which solar gas becomes transparent. The invisible corona extends beyond the planets and presents one of the most puzzling paradoxes of solar physics: it is unexpectedly hot, reaching temperatures of more than one million kelvins just above the photosphere; the sun's visible surface is only 5,780 kelvins. Heat simply should not flow outward from a cooler to a hotter region. It violates the second law of thermodynamics and all common sense as well. Thus, there must be some mechanism transporting energy from the photosphere, or below, out to the corona. Both kinetic and magnetic energy can flow from cold to hot regions. So writhing gases and shifting magnetic fields may be accountable.

For studying the corona and identifying its elusive heating mechanism, physicists look at ultraviolet (UV), extreme ultraviolet (EUV) and x-ray radiation. This is because hot material—such as that within the corona—emits most of its energy at these wavelengths. Also, the photosphere is too cool to emit intense radiation at these wavelengths, so it appears dark under the hot gas. Unfortunately, UV, EUV and x-rays are partially or totally absorbed by the earth's atmosphere, and so they must be observed through telescopes in space. SOHO is now measuring radiation at UV and EUV wavelengths using four instruments: the Extreme-ultraviolet Imaging Telescope (EIT), the Solar Ultraviolet Measurements of Emitted Radiation (SUMER), the Coronal Diagnostic Spectrometer (CDS) and the UltraViolet Coronagraph Spectrometer (UVCS).

SOHO's Instruments

Researchers around the world are studying the sun using 12 instruments on board SOHO. Three devices probe the sun's interior; six measure the solar atmosphere; and three keep track of the star's far-reaching winds.

GOLF The Global Oscillations at Low Frequencies device records the velocity of global oscillations within the sun Alan H. Gabriel, Institut d' Astrophysique Spatiale, France
VIRGO The Variability of solar IRradiance and Gravity Oscillations instrument measures fluctuations in the sun's brightness, as well as its precise energy output Claus Fröhlich, Physico Meteorological Observatory Davos and World Radiation Center, Switzerland
SOI/MDI The Solar Oscillations Investigation/Michelson Doppler Imager measures the velocity of oscillations, produced by sounds trapped inside the sun Phillip H. Scherrer, Stanford University, U.S.
SUMER The Solar Ultraviolet Measurements of Emitted Radiation instrument gives data about the temperatures, densities and velocities of various gases in the chromosphere and corona Klaus Wilhelm, Max Planck Institute for Aeronomy, Germany
CDS The Coronal Diagnostic Spectrometer records the temperature and density of gases in the corona Richard A. Harrison, Rutherford Appleton Laboratory, U.K.
EIT The Extreme-ultraviolet Imaging Telescope provides full-disk images of the chromosphere and the corona Jean-Pierre Delaboudinière Institut d'Astrophysique Spatiale
UVCS The UltraViolet Coronagraph Spectrometer measures the temperatures and velocities of hydrogen atoms, oxygen and other ions in the corona John L. Kohl, Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory, U.S.
LASCO The Large Angle Spectroscopic COronograph provides images that reveal the corona's activity, mass momentum and energy Guenter E. Brueckner, Naval Research Laboratory, U.S.
SWAN The Solar Wind ANisotropies device monitors latititudinal and temporal variations in the solar wind Jean-Loup Bertaux, Service d'Aéronomie France
CELIAS The Charge, ELement and Isotope Analysis System quantifies the mass, charge, composition and energy distribution of particles in the solar wind Peter Bochsler, University of Bern, Switzerland
COSTEP The COmprehensive SupraThermal and Energetic Particle analyzer determines the energy distribution of protons, helium ions and electrons Horst Kunow, University of Kiel, Germany
ERNE The Energetic and Relativistic Nuclei and Electron experiment measures the energy Jarmo Torsti, University of Turku,

To map out structures across the solar disk, ranging in temperature from 6,000 to two million kelvins, SOHO makes use of spectral lines. These lines appear when the sun's radiation intensity is displayed as a function of wavelength. The various SOHO instruments locate regions having a specific temperature by tuning into spectral lines emitted by the ions formed there. Atoms in a hotter gas lose more electrons through collisions, and so they become more highly ionized. Because these different ions emit spectral lines at different wavelengths, they serve as a kind of thermometer. We can also infer the speed of the material moving in these regions from the Doppler wavelength changes of the spectral lines SOHO records.

Ultraviolet radiation has recently revealed that the sun is a vigorous, violent place even when its 11-year activity cycle is in an apparent slump—and this fact may help explain why the corona is so hot. The whole sun seems to sparkle in the UV light emitted by localized bright spots. According to SOHO measurements, these ubiquitous hot spots are formed at a temperature of a million kelvins, and they seem to originate in small, magnetic loops of hot gas found all over the sun, including both its north and south poles. Some of these spots explode and hurl material outward at speeds of hundreds of kilometers per second. SOHO scientists are now studying these bright spots to see if they play an important role in the elusive coronal heating mechanism.

To explore changes at higher levels in the sun's atmosphere, SOHO relies on its UVCS and its Large Angle Spectroscopic COronagraph (LASCO). Both instruments use occulting disks to block the photosphere's underlying glare. LASCO detects visible sunlight scattered by electrons in the corona. Initially it revealed a simple corona—one that was highly symmetrical and stable. This corona, viewed during the sun's magnetic lull, exhibited pronounced holes in the north and south. (Coronal holes are extended, low-density, low-temperature regions where EUV and x-ray emissions are abnormally low or absent.)

In contrast, the equatorial regions were ringed by straight, flat streamers of outflowing matter. The sun's magnetic field shapes these streamers. At their base, electrified matter is densely concentrated within magnetized loops rooted in the photosphere. Farther out in the corona, the streamers narrow and stretch tens of millions of kilometers into space. These extensions confine material at temperatures of about two million kelvins within their elongated magnetic boundaries, creating a belt of hot gas that extends around the sun.

The streamers live up to their name: material seems to flow continuously along their open magnetic fields. Occasionally the coronagraphs record dense concentrations of material moving through an otherwise unchanging streamer—like seeing leaves floating on a moving stream. And sometimes tremendous eruptions, called coronal mass ejections, punctuate the steady outward flow. These ejections hurl billions of tons of million-degree gases into interplanetary space at speeds of hundreds of kilometers per second. This material often reaches the earth in only two or three days. To almost everyone's astonishment, LASCO found equatorial ejections emitted within hours of each other from opposite sides of the sun.


On Sale
Dec 2, 2002
Page Count
176 pages