Modern telescopes and satellites have helped us measure the blazing hot temperatures of the sun from afar. Mostly the temperatures follow a clear pattern: The sun produces energy by fusing hydrogen in its core, so the layers surrounding the core generally get cooler as you move outwards—with one exception. Two NASA missions have just made a significant step towards understanding why the corona—the outermost, wispy layer of the sun's atmosphere —is hundreds of times hotter than the lower photosphere, which is the sun’s visible surface.
In a pair of papers in The Astrophysical Journal, published on August 10, 2015, researchers—led by Joten Okamoto of Nagoya University in Japan and Patrick Antolin of the National Astronomical Observatory of Japan—observed a long-hypothesized mechanism for coronal heating, in which magnetic waves are converted into heat energy. Past papers have suggested that magnetic waves in the sun -- Alfvénic waves – have enough energy to heat up the corona. The question has been how that energy is converted to heat.
"For over 30 years scientists hypothesized a mechanism for how these waves heat the plasma," said Antolin. "An essential part of this process is called resonant absorption -- and we have now directly observed resonant absorption for the first time."
Resonant absorption is a complicated wave process in which repeated waves add energy to the solar material, a charged gas known as plasma, the same way that a perfectly-timed repeated push on a swing can make it go higher. Resonant absorption has signatures that can be seen in material moving side to side and front to back.
To see the full range of motions, the team used observations from NASA’s Interface Region Imaging Spectrograph, or IRIS, and the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA)/NASA’s Hinode solar observatory to successfully identify signatures of the process. The researchers then correlated the signatures to material being heated to nearly corona-level temperatures. These observations told researchers that a certain type of plasma wave was being converted into a more turbulent type of motion, leading to lots of friction and electric currents, heating the solar material.
The researchers focused on a solar feature called a filament. Filaments are huge tubes of relatively cool plasma held high up in the corona by magnetic fields. Researchers developed a computer model of how the material inside filament tubes moves, then looked for signatures of these motions with sun-observing satellites.
“Through numerical simulations, we show that the observed characteristic motion matches well what is expected from resonant absorption,” said Antolin.
The signatures of these motions appear in three dimensions, making them difficult to observe without the teamwork of several missions. Hinode’s Solar Optical Telescope was used to make measurements of motions that appear, from our perspective, to be up-and-down or side-to-side, a perspective that scientists call plane-of-sky. The resonant absorption model relies on the fact that the plasma contained in a filament tube moves in a specific wave motion called an Alfvénic kink wave, caused by magnetic fields. Alfvénic kink waves in filaments can cause motions in the plane-of-sky, so evidence of these waves came from observations by Hinode’s extremely high-resolution optical telescope.
“Now the work starts to study if this mechanism also plays a role in heating plasma to coronal temperatures,” said De Pontieu.