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Tornado causes a storm
on the Sun

Posted: 30 March 2012

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A solar twister many times as wide as the Earth has been filmed in action by NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory (SDO).

Xing Li of Aberystwyth University discovered the tornado in the SDO dataset collected on 25 September, 2011. “I was browsing the daily movies from SDO and this event just caught my eye, it’s beautiful,” he tells Astronomy Now. “The shape and the size changes during this event but at its widest can be five or six Earths wide and as high as 20 Earths.”

Tornadoes on Earth spiral across the planet at speeds of up to 150 kilometres per hour, but the solar twisters reach 300,000 kilometres per hour.

“The event is huge – we see four or five hours of coherent rotation,” says co-discoverer Huw Morgan, “But although it looks like a tornado on Earth the underlying physics is very different because on the Sun we have energetic magnetic plasma.”

SDO’s Atmospheric Imaging Assembly (AIA) telescope recorded superheated gases as hot as two million degrees kelvin spiral up into the high atmosphere along helical paths.

Solar tornadoes are often associated with coronal mass ejections, an eruption of solar matter and magnetic fields that if launched towards Earth can wreck havoc on satellites, communications systems and even knock out the electricity grid. The giant event found by the Aberystwyth University researchers doesn’t erupt, however.

“It gives us a unique opportunity as to what’s going on,” says Morgan. “We see waves and blobs of plasma travelling through the structure highlighting the magnetic field, so it’s a very good event to study such phenomena.”

The movie was presented today at the National Astronomy Meeting in Manchester.