Nr. 16-96 - Paris, 15 July 1996

SOHO starts a revolution in the science of the Sun

Human perceptions of the star that gives us life are changing rapidly as a thousand images a day stream from the sungazing SOHO spacecraft 1,500,000 kilometres out in space. Since its launch on 2 December 1995, the Solar and Heliospheric Observatory has vastly improved the ability of scientists to probe the Sun's interior by detecting sound waves at its surface. SOHO also gives the best maps of the ever-changing patterns of magnetism at the Sun's visible surface. And the spacecraft has revealed and anatomized knots of hot activity that can occur in the solar atmosphere even when the visible surface of the Sun appears completely calm.

In addition, SOHO has found clues to the forces that accelerate the solar wind of atomic particles blowing unceasingly through the Solar System. By relating the huge outbursts called coronal mass ejections to preceding magnetic changes in the Sun, SOHO scientists hope to predict such events which, in the Earth's vicinity, endanger power supplies and satellites. SOHO sees differences in the strength of the solar wind in various directions, by mapping a cavity in the cloud of interstellar hydrogen surrounding the Sun. As a bonus, SOHO secured remarkable images of Comet Hyakutake, by ultraviolet and visible light.

The revolution in solar science will seem more complete when all the pieces and actions of the Sun, detected by twelve different instruments, are brought together in observations and concepts. Fundamental questions will then be open to re-examination, about the origin of the Sun's magnetism, the cause of its variations in the 11-year cycle of sunspot activity, and the consequences for the Solar System at large. SOHO is greater than the sum of its parts.

"SOHO takes solar science by storm," says Roger Bonnet, the European Space Agency's Director of Science, "thanks to its combination of instruments. Unprecedented results from individual telescopes and spectrometers are impressive, of course, but what is breathtaking is SOHO's ability to explore the Sun all the way from its nuclear core to the Earth's vicinity and beyond. We can expect a completely new picture of how agitation inside the Sun, transmitted through the solar atmosphere, directly affects us on the Earth."

SOHO is a project of international cooperation between the European Space Agency and NASA. The spacecraft was built in Europe and instrumented by scientists on both sides of the Atlantic. NASA launched SOHO and provides the ground stations and an operations centre at the Goddard Space Flight Center near Washington. SOHO has an uninterrupted view of the Sun from a halo orbit around Lagrangian Point No. 1 where the gravity of the Sun and the Earth are in balance. The spacecraft's engineering has proved to be excellent and no difficulty is anticipated in keeping it operational for at least six years.

Early SOHO results were summarized in ESA's Information Note Nr 07-96, 2 May 1996. Here follow notes and comments on some further conclusions by SOHO's scientists.

Fast action in the Sun's atmosphere

The ultraviolet spectrometers aboard SOHO, called SUMER and CDS, were designed to analyse events in the solar atmosphere and discover temperatures, densities and speeds of motion in the gas. Their detailed results come in the spectra, which analyse the intensities at different wavelengths with high sensitivity, but the spectrometers also generate images by scanning selected regions of the Sun.

When the SUMER instrument scans the whole Sun by the ultraviolet light of strongly ionized sulphur atoms (S VI at 933 angstroms) it picks out gas at 200,000 degrees C and reveals a vast number of bright regions created by magnetic field lines looping through the atmosphere. The brightness can change by a factor of ten in a distance of a few thousand kilometres or in a few seconds of time. SUMER has also shown that thick streaks called polar plumes, which climb far into space from the Sun's polar regions, are anchored in bright regions near the Sun's visible surface.

The spectrometer CDS has observed fast action in the Sun's atmosphere. It can measure velocities along the line of sight by shifts in the wavelength of emissions from selected atoms, and contrary motions (turbulence) appear in a spreading of the wavelengths. In one high-velocity event, corresponding with a small streak of brightness in the scanned image, CDS detected vertical motions differing by 450 kilometres per second, and an overall motion of 65 kilometres per second downwards.

"By taking the Sun's atmosphere to pieces we begin to understand how it influences our lives," says Richard Harrison of the UK's Rutherford Appleton Laboratory, principal investigator for the CDS spectrometer. "Surprises here on Earth don't come from the steady light and heat, which we take for granted, but from atmospheric storms that send shock waves through the Solar System. By making temperature and density maps of the Sun's atmosphere we expect to find out how these storms develop."

Accelerator of the solar wind

All of the common chemical elements are present in the Sun's atmosphere, though they are not always detectable. They are represented more plainly in the solar wind. SOHO's solar-wind analyser CELIAS has demonstrated an unprecedented ability to recognize and quantify many different elements and isotopes.

There is a puzzle about how the heavy atoms are accelerated, so that they can keep up with the commonplace lightweight hydrogen of the solar wind. If the speeds of atomic particles were due only to heat, heavy atoms would travel much more slowly than the hydrogen atoms. That is not the case. Instead, a natural electromagnetic accelerator, akin to man-made particle accelerators, operates in the Sun's atmosphere and treats all elements similarly.

Measurements of the speeds of oxygen atoms leaving the Sun's atmosphere to join the solar wind catch them in the process of acceleration. As the stop light changes to green, the oxygen atoms go from less than 100 kilometres per second at 250,000 kilometres above the solar surface, to about 225 kilometres per second a million kilometres farther out. This result comes from SOHO's ultraviolet coronagraph UVCS, observing conditions above a polar coronal hole, where the atmosphere is relatively cool and magnetic lines run freely into space. Here originates a fast solar wind at around 700 kilometres per second, with about twice the speed of the solar wind coming from magnetically constrained regions near the Sun's equator. One of SOHO's main tasks is to explain the solar wind, and further investigations by UVCS may settle arguments about how the natural accelerator works.

"Some of the big rewards from SOHO will come from better and more continuous observation" comments Vicente Domingo, ESA's project scientist for SOHO. "In other cases wholly new results will help to decide between conflicting theories. UVCS's high-speed oxygen atoms at the source of the fast solar wind are one case in point. Sub-surface motions revealed by MDI are another."

Sub-surface flows show pancake-like features

MDI is SOHO's oscillations imager and it is the most elaborate of the instruments that probe inside the Sun by helioseismology, using oscillations at the visible surface due to sound waves reverberating through the interior. MDI divides the Sun's surface into a million points and measures vertical motions once a minute by small changes of the wavelength of light. Deducing flows just below the visible surface requires prolonged calculations with a supercomputer. These detect small changes in the travel-time of sound waves according to whether they are heading into, or travelling with, the flow of material inside the Sun.

After mapping sub-surface flows across a wide area, the MDI team has analysed a vertical slice. Along a 300,000-kilometre line at the Sun's equator, the computation cuts 8000 kilometres deep into the turbulent convection zone, where the outer part of the Sun boils like a kettle. The main convection cells that link ascending and descending flows turn out to be surprisingly shallow and pancake-like. They reach down about 1500 kilometres, compared with about 4000 kilometres expected by some theorists. Further results from an intensive observing campaign will enable the MDI scientists to confirm that their first results are typical, and to make a movie to see how structures change with time.

Stormy weather ahead

The oscillation imager MDI also charts magnetic fields running in and out of the Sun's surface. The speckled pattern that it sees will change dramatically in the years ahead, when the Sun is due to swap its north and south magnetic poles around and sunspots will become much more numerous.

Among SOHO's earliest results, the daily observations by the extreme ultraviolet imager EIT revealed many bright and active spots. They tell of remarkable activity in many parts of the Sun's atmosphere, even at a time when the surface observed by visible light looks very calm. The extent of atmospheric storms becomes more apparent in a new processing of EIT images which compares the intensities at different wavelengths.

In one case a huge and complex magnetic disturbance in the Sun's equatorial atmosphere was almost half as wide as the visible disk of the Sun. The extent and violence of such events can only tend to increase as the Sun becomes more active.

"EIT is beginning a career similar to the meteorological satellites that monitor the weather on the Earth every day," says its principal investigator, Jean-Pierre Delaboudini the Institut d'Astrophysique Spatiale at Orsay in France. "Just as those have revolutionized meteorology, so our observations give us vivid new impressions of the Sun's weather. SOHO is due to operate for at least six years, into the next maximum of sunspot activity, so we shall see more precisely than ever before the changes in solar weather with the magnetic seasons, which also affect conditions at the Earth."

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