Scientists studying sound waves from deep inside the Sun have provided new insights into the solar dynamo within, which could help to explain how the Sun's colossal magnetic field behaves.
An international team of researchers report in the journal Science today (5 April issue) that they have detected variations in the speed at which different regions of the Sun's interior rotate, observations which appear to be intimately connected with the 11-year cycle of the Sun's magnetic activity.
At the peak of its magnetic activity, the Sun displays large numbers of sunspots accompanied by frequent solar flares and Earth-impacting ejections of hot plasma, events that can disrupt satellite-based communications and even terrestrial power grids.
The new findings come from analysis by Dr Sergei Vorontsov (Queen Mary, University of London) and his colleagues of data obtained over the past six years from the Michelson Doppler Imager instrument aboard the SOHO solar observatory.
The outer 30 per cent of the Sun below its surface is a turbulent cauldron of gas, known as the convection zone. To measure the behaviour of the flows at various depths in and below this zone the team turned to studying solar sound waves - akin to geologists using seismic waves from earthquakes to probe the inside of our planet.
The scientists, based at five different research institutions in the UK, Denmark, USA and Russia, used the technique to examine the magnetic bands of slower and faster rotation ('torsional oscillations') and discovered that the entire convection zone is involved in their flow.
There are clear differences in rotation across the solar surface latitudes - equatorial regions rotating in about 25 days and polar regions in about 33 days - while the team found the characteristic structure of the bands was retained as they probed deep into the convection zone. Over the 11-year solar cycle these magnetic bands migrate towards the pole at high latitudes, and towards the equator from low latitudes.
These findings fit well with the expected 11-year period of the solar cycle, providing strong evidence of dynamical changes that may accompany the operation of the solar dynamo, and could be important in building models of how the Sun behaves, say the researchers.
"At the peak of magnetic activity, the Earth is bombarded by the resulting flood of plasma from the Sun, leading to great shows of northern lights," said one of the five authors, Professor Michael Thompson of Imperial College, London.
"More hazardously to today's modern technological society, such solar outbursts are capable of disrupting satellite-based communications and even terrestrial power grids."
"We are still far from understanding, let alone predicting, such eruptions and their origin in the deep solar interior. However, results such as these are a step towards a better grasp of the complex processes in the deep solar interior and may eventually help us towards the elusive goal of predicting the violent behaviour of the Sun," said Professor Thompson.
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Notes to Editors:
The research is published in the 5 April 2002 issue of Science, and is embargoed for 14:00 US Eastern Standard Time / 19:00 British Summer Time on Thursday 4 April.
Title: Helioseismic Measurement of Solar Torsional Oscillations
Queen Mary, University of London, London, UK
University of Aarhus, Aarhus, Denmark
Stanford University, USA
V. N. Strakhov
Institute of Physics of the Earth, Moscow, Russia
Michael J. Thompson
Imperial College, London, UK
(details as above)
The same issue of Science also contains a Perspectives article covering the research. Order Amidst Turbulence by Juri Toomre of the University of Colorado, Boulder, USA (firstname.lastname@example.org) provides further discussion of the solar dynamo and of other complex flows ("Solar Subsurface Weather") in which the more ordered behavior of torsional oscillations are embedded.
2. SOHO is a project of international cooperation between ESA and NASA. Web site at: http://sohowww.
3. The basic data for the analyses were gathered by SOHO between May 1996 and January 2002.
4. Imperial College of Science, Technology and Medicine is the largest applied science, technology and medicine university institution in the UK. It is consistently rated in the top three UK university institutions for research quality, with one of the largest annual turnovers (UKP390 million for 2000-01) and research incomes (UKP202 million for 2000-01). In the December 2001 Research Assessment Exercise, 75 per cent of staff achieved a 5* rating, the highest proportion in any UK university. Visit: www.ic.ac.uk