Solar scientists have long known that at the heart of the great explosions of solar material that shoot off the sun — known as coronal mass ejections or CMEs – lies a twisted kink of magnetic fields known as a flux rope. But no one has known when or where they form. Now, for the first time, NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory as captured a flux rope in the very act of formation. Credit: NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center
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On July 18, 2012, a fairly small explosion of light burst off the lower right limb of the sun. Such flares often come with an associated eruption of solar material, known as a coronal mass ejection or CME – but this one did not. Something interesting did happen, however. Magnetic field lines in this area of the sun’s atmosphere, the corona, began to twist and kink, generating the hottest solar material – a charged gas called plasma – to trace out the newly-formed slinky shape. The plasma glowed brightly in extreme ultraviolet images from the Atmospheric Imaging Assembly (AIA) aboard NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory (SDO) and scientists were able to watch for the first time the very formation of something they had long theorized was at the heart of many eruptive events on the sun: a flux rope.

Eight hours later, on July 19, the same region flared again. This time the flux rope’s connection to the sun was severed, and the magnetic fields escaped into space, dragging billions of tons of solar material along for the ride — a classic CME.

The image on the left shows a series of magnetic loops on the sun, as captured by SDO on July 18, 2012.  The image on the right has been processed to highlight the edges of each loop and make the structure more clear.

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The image on the left shows a series of magnetic loops on the sun, as captured by NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory on July 18, 2012. The image on the right has been processed to highlight the edges of each loop and make the structure more clear. A series of loops such as this is known as a flux rope, and these lie at the heart of eruptions on the sun known as coronal mass ejections (CMEs.) This is the first time scientists were able to discern the timing of a flux rope’s formation. Credit: NASA/SDO/Goddard Space Flight Center

“Seeing this structure was amazing,” says Angelos Vourlidas, a solar scientist at the Naval Research Laboratory in Washington, D.C. “It looks exactly like the cartoon sketches theorists have been drawing of flux ropes since the 1970s. It was a series of figure eights lined up to look like a giant slinky on the sun.”

More than just gorgeous to see, such direct observation offers one case study on how this crucial kernel at the heart of a CME forms. Such flux ropes have been seen in images of CMEs as they fly away from the sun, but it’s never been known – indeed, has been strongly debated – whether the flux rope formed before or in conjunction with a CME’s launch. This case shows a clear-cut example of the flux rope forming ahead of time. Vourlidas is a co-author, along with Spiro Patsourakos and Guillermo Stenborg, of a paper on these results published in the Astrophysical Journal on Jan. 31, 2013.

Spotting such a foreshadowing of a CME could help scientists develop ways to predict them, says Dean Pesnell, the project scientist for SDO at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md. “By telling us when and where flux ropes will erupt,” Pesnell says. “SDO helps us predict a major source of space weather.”

Scientific research is always a dance between hypothesis and experimental confirmation, and the history of the flux rope is no exception. Plasma physicists suggested that such coils of magnetic field lines were at the heart of flares in the 1970s and spacecraft near Earth provided in-situ measurements that occasionally traced out helical structures inside CMEs. Later, the flux ropes were spotted in images of CMEs captured by the joint ESA/NASA Solar Heliospheric Observatory (SOHO) – which launched in 1995 – using the mission’s Large Angle and Spectrometric Coronagraph (LASCO), a telescope that blocks out the bright light of the solar disk in order to better see the tenuous corona around it. They are now a regular appearance on coronagraph and heliospheric imaging observations.

When it came to watching them form in a CME, however, the task was much harder. Since CMEs can form quite suddenly – known as impulsive CMEs – the associated flux ropes are smaller and closer to the surface, making it difficult to spot them amongst the many structures in the corona.

In the absence of direct observational evidence, theorists have produced two theories based on general physics of plasmas and magnetic fields of how and when the flux rope might form. In one, the magnetic structure of the rope exists before the CME, and as it evolves over time it twists and kinks becoming increasingly unstable. Eventually it erupts from the sun, releasing enormous amounts of energy and solar plasma. In the second version, the CME erupts when looping magnetic field lines are severed from the sun’s surface. While the great blob of solar material streams off the sun, the fields reconnect with each other to form a classic flux rope shape.