NASA spotlights 'fountains of fire' on the sun
Solar coronal loops
GREENBELT, Maryland (CNN) -- NASA Tuesday released dramatic new images showing "fountains of fire" on the sun, which the space agency said will help solar physicists better understand why the sun's atmosphere, or corona, is a thousand times hotter than its surface.
The "fountains of fire" are actually huge arches of
super-hot, electrified gas, called coronal loops, that shoot out from the surface of the sun. The new images show these coronal loops in unprecedented detail and indicate that the loops are not heated evenly throughout their height, as previously thought, but are hottest at their base, within about 10,000 miles of the sun's visible surface.
The sun is covered in millions of these coronal loops at any given time, some much larger than others. The most massive arches are more than 300,000 miles high and would span the Earth 30 times.
The images were captured using a sun-observing satellite called TRACE (Transition Region and Coronal Explorer).
"The mysterious energy source that makes the sun's atmosphere so incredibly hot has been an enigma for more than 70 years, and before we discover what it is, we needed to learn where it is," said Markus Aschwanden of the Lockheed-Martin Solar and Astrophysics Laboratory.
"Locating the source of coronal heating is a key piece of this puzzle, and we are excited that solar observatories like TRACE are allowing us to resolve the hidden events occurring in the atmospheres of stars."
Scientists are interested in knowing more about the corona, because that is the part of the sun where solar storms are generated. Solar storms, also called Coronal Mass Ejections (CMEs), are occasional eruptions of gas from the sun that stream through through space at speeds of 600 miles per second or more.
The high-energy solar winds produced by these storms have been known to temporarily alter the earth's magnetic field -- often increasing displays of the Northern and Southern Lights. Less frequently, strong solar storms can damage satellites in orbit, or disrupt power transmissions on Earth.
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Lockheed-Martin Solar and Astrophysics Laboratory
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