This is Your Brain On Awesome Thoughts on the world from a student of the mind

21Dec/10

Sunspots!

I just finished reading Carl Sagan's Pale Blue Dot, and doing so has inspired the astrologist in me to start appreciating the vast and unknown universe that makes up 99.99999% of existence.

Lucky for me, there are plenty of amazing people who devote their entire lives to this cause, such as the folks at the Swedish Solar Telescope.  Located in La Palma, Spain, the telescope recently released a stunning high-res image of one of our sun's most interesting phenomena - sun spots.

Seen above as the dark core that is surrounded by the red hot exterior of the sun, one might think that these are actual "holes" in the sun's exterior.  Actually, they're made up of the same gas that exists everywhere else in the sun, so why do they look so different?  The answer is magnetism.

As They Might Be Giants so righteously declared, "The Sun is a mass of incandescent gas."  It exists as an unbelievably hot ball of fusion in which hydrogen and helium (among other things) are being heated and dispersed at an incredible rate.  This process occurs primarily at the Sun's core, and as these gases make their way outwards towards the surface, it creates a turbulent and chaotic environment in which gases are constantly heating and cooling and moving every which way.

So, where is magnetism in all this?  Well, scientists aren't really sure, but the thought is that as the turbulent sea of gas at the sun's surface moves around, it does so in such a way that creates an incredibly powerful magnetic field.  This creates pockets of magnetic pressure that allows the gas contained within that pocket to cool down, resulting in the dark holes that we know as "sun spots."  (as an aside, by cool, I mean, not quite as earth-shatteringly hot...it's still around 4000K!)

While sun spots themselves do not affect the earth, the magnetic fields that create them certainly do.  Rather than go into the details (I'm just a neuroscientist, after all), I'll appeal to this slightly frightening picture.

Pretty crazy huh?  Those lines emanating from the sun represent its magnetic field, and those around the earth represent our "magnetosphere," a strong magnetic field created by the earth that "protects" us from all sorts of hellish activity the sun routinely throws our way.

So, the next time you're looking at the simple little ball of yellow in the sky, think about all the chaos that's going on were you to take a closer peak at its surface.  Think about the massive oceans of gas that are turbulent enough to eject particles millions of light-years into the solar system, and then you can pick your jaw off of the floor.

via Astronomy Picture of the Day

If you're looking for a more detailed description of this process, then check out the Exploratorium's guide to sun spots.  It covers everything from history to the cutting edge of research in this field, as well as the many ways in which the sun interacts with the Earth's atmosphere.

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