Using data from the ESA/NASA SOHO observatory, scientists have produced the first three-dimensional views of massive solar eruptions, called Coronal Mass Ejections (CMEs). When directed at Earth, CMEs often disrupt radio communications, satellite links and power systems. This new result is critical for a complete understanding of these dramatic phenomena.
CMEs are the most powerful eruptions in the Solar System, with thousands of millions of tonnes of electrified gas being blasted from the Sun's atmosphere into space at millions of kilometres per hour. Researchers believe that CMEs are launched when solar magnetic fields become strained and suddenly 'snap' to a new configuration, like a rubber band that has been twisted to the breaking point.
To fully understand the origin of these powerful blasts and the process that launches them from the Sun, scientists need to see the structure of CMEs in three dimensions. "Views in three dimensions will help us to better predict CME arrival times and impact angles at the Earth," says Dr Thomas Moran of the Catholic University, Washington, USA.
In collaboration with Dr Joseph Davila, of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, USA, Moran has analysed two-dimensional images from the ESA/NASA Solar and Heliospheric Observatory (SOHO) in a new way to yield 3D images.
Their technique is able to reveal the complex and distorted magnetic fields that travel with the CME cloud and sometimes interact with Earth's own magnetic field, pouring tremendous amounts of energy into the space near Earth.
"These magnetic fields are invisible," Moran explains, "but since the CME gas is electrified, it spirals around the magnetic fields, tracing out their shapes." Therefore, a 3D view of the CME electrified gas (called a plasma) gives scientists valuable information on the structure and behaviour of the magnetic fields powering the CME.
Whilst the light emitted by the Sun is not polarised, once it is scattered off electrons in the CME plasma it takes up some polarisation. This means that the electric fields of some of the scattered light are forced to oscillate in certain directions, whereas the electric field in the light emitted by the Sun is free to oscillate in all directions.
Moran and Davila knew that light from CME structures closer to the plane of the Sun (as seen on the LASCO images) had to be more polarised than light from structures farther from that plane. Thus, by computing the ratio of polarised to unpolarised light for each CME structure, they could measure its distance from the plane. This provided the missing third dimension to the LASCO images.
With this technique, the team has confirmed that the structure of CMEs directed towards Earth is an expanding arcade of loops, rather than a bubble or rope-like structure.
Although this technique had been independently developed previously to study relatively static structures in the solar atmosphere during eclipses, this is the first time that it is applied to fast moving CMEs.
Moran and Davila believe that their method will complement data from the upcoming NASA’s Solar Terrestrial Relations Observatory (STEREO) mission, scheduled for launch in February 2006. STEREO will use two widely separated spacecraft to construct 3D views of CMEs by combining images from the different vantage points of the twin spacecraft.
3D Movie here