NASA/SDO/AIA/Aberystwyth University/Li/Morgan/Leonard
In the lower corona swirling magnetic fields and plasma create huge solar tornadoes measuring several times the width of Earth.
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updated 3/29/2012 11:16:45 AM ET 2012-03-29T15:16:45

For the first time, huge solar tornadoes have been filmed swirling deep inside the solar corona — the sun's superheated atmosphere. But if you're imagining the pedestrian tornadoes that we experience on Earth, think again.

These solar monsters, measuring the width of several Earths and swirling at speeds of up to 190,000 miles per hour, aren't only fascinating structures; they may also trigger violent magnetic eruptions that can have drastic effects on our planet.

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In one example observed on Sept. 25, 2011, solar researchers from the UK used the high-definition cameras onboard NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory (SDO) to track solar gases as hot as 2 million Kelvin (3.6 million degrees Fahrenheit) getting sucked from the bottom of a solar prominence and spiral high into the corona. The solar tornado then developed for three hours, gases traveling in spiral paths for around 200,000 kilometers (120,000 miles).

"Prominences are tangled magnetic fields trapping cold and dense plasma in the solar corona," Xing Li, solar physicist at Aberystwyth University, told Discovery News. "These often erupt spectacularly and fly out into space as coronal mass ejections (CMEs), and large CMEs will impact our space weather and space technology in a significant way when they are heading toward the Earth.

"What drives these eruptions is still not clear and is very important to gain an understanding of CME initiation (so that we can possibly predict such events)."

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As mankind becomes more dependent on sensitive technology, it is critical that we develop new and more sophisticated ways to predict the sun's next "temper tantrum." As it turns out, these twisted tornadoes may hold the key to predicting when the next CME will be launched.

"This unique and spectacular tornado must play a role in triggering global solar storms," said co-discoverer Huw Morgan, also at Aberystwyth University.

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"These tornadoes may help to produce favorable conditions for CMEs to occur," Li added, pointing out that the tornadoes his team studied coincided with CME eruptions as observed by other instruments monitoring the wider corona.

Also, the tornadoes observed so far by Li and Morgan often occur at the root of where CMEs are initiated. As the dynamic structures wind-up magnetic fields and drag powerful electric currents high into the corona, these tornadoes could generate the conditions ripe for CME eruptions, they theorize.

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But to observe the tornadoes in the first place requires a bit of luck.

Firstly, as they are magnetic structures, if the tornado is empty of radiating plasma, they will remain invisible. Only when hot plasma is being dragged high into the corona can they be seen. Conversely, should the tornado be completely flooded with plasma, you wouldn't see the motion of the material as the radiating plasma would be completely washed out.

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Li highlights the need for discrete objects inside the swirling mass so they can be tracked as they move around the tornado. He likens this to the dust and bits of debris that a terrestrial tornado would pick up. Without these objects, we couldn't "see" the spinning wind currents. The same goes for solar tornadoes; discrete "blobs" of plasma can be tracked as they are accelerated and carried high into the corona by the tornado's magnetic field.

"Also, we believe that the angle you view the tornado from is important," Li added. "For example, if you imagine the slinky structure mentioned above, if you view it from the side it may not appear so clearly as a tornado."

In the past, observers have spotted prominences that they described as "tornadoes," but in the days before the SDO was launched, the necessary definition and rapid image capturing techniques simply weren't available.

This research, including the first video of a solar tornado the researchers refer to as "the beast" (pictured top), was presented at the National Astronomy Meeting (NAM) in Manchester on Thursday. Animations of the tornado, plus more imagery, can be found on Li's research page.

© 2012 Discovery Channel

Photos: Month in Space: January 2014

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  1. Southern stargazing

    Stars, galaxies and nebulas dot the skies over the European Southern Observatory's La Silla Paranal Observatory in Chile, in a picture released on Jan. 7. This image also shows three of the four movable units that feed light into the Very Large Telescope Interferometer, the world's most advanced optical instrument. Combining to form one larger telescope, they are greater than the sum of their parts: They reveal details that would otherwise be visible only through a telescope as large as the distance between them. (Y. Beletsky / ESO) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. A balloon's view

    Cameras captured the Grandville High School RoboDawgs' balloon floating through Earth's upper atmosphere during its ascent on Dec. 28, 2013. The Grandville RoboDawgs’ first winter balloon launch reached an estimated altitude of 130,000 feet, or about 25 miles, according to coaches Mike Evele and Doug Hepfer. It skyrocketed past the team’s previous 100,000-feet record set in June. The RoboDawgs started with just one robotics team in 1998, but they've grown to support more than 30 teams at public schools in Grandville, Mich. (Kyle Moroney / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Spacemen at work

    Russian cosmonauts Oleg Kotov, right, and Sergey Ryazanskiy perform maintenance on the International Space Station on Jan. 27. During the six-hour, eight-minute spacewalk, Kotov and Ryazanskiy completed the installation of a pair of high-fidelity cameras that experienced connectivity issues during a Dec. 27 spacewalk. The cosmonauts also retrieved scientific gear outside the station's Russian segment. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Special delivery

    The International Space Station's Canadian-built robotic arm moves toward Orbital Sciences Corp.'s Cygnus autonomous cargo craft as it approaches the station for a Jan. 12 delivery. The mountains below are the southwestern Alps. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Accidental art

    A piece of art? A time-lapse photo? A flickering light show? At first glance, this image looks nothing like the images we're used to seeing from the Hubble Space Telescope. But it's a genuine Hubble frame that was released on Jan. 27. Hubble's team suspects that the telescope's Fine Guidance System locked onto a bad guide star, potentially a double star or binary. This caused an error in the tracking system, resulting in a remarkable picture of brightly colored stellar streaks. The prominent red streaks are from stars in the globular cluster NGC 288. (NASA / ESA) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Supersonic test flight

    A camera looking back over Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo's fuselage shows the rocket burn with a Mojave Desert vista in the background during a test flight of the rocket plane on Jan. 10. Cameras were mounted on the exterior of SpaceShipTwo as well as its carrier airplane, WhiteKnightTwo, to monitor the rocket engine's performance. The test was aimed at setting the stage for honest-to-goodness flights into outer space later this year, and eventual commercial space tours.

    More about SpaceShipTwo on PhotoBlog (Virgin Galactic) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Red lagoon

    The VLT Survey Telescope at the European Southern Observatory's Paranal Observatory in Chile captured this richly detailed new image of the Lagoon Nebula, released on Jan. 22. This giant cloud of gas and dust is creating intensely bright young stars, and is home to young stellar clusters. This image is a tiny part of just one of 11 public surveys of the sky now in progress using ESO telescopes. (ESO/VPHAS team) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Fire on the mountain

    This image provided by NASA shows a satellite view of smoke from the Colby Fire, taken by the Multi-angle Imaging SpectroRadiometer aboard NASA's Terra spacecraft as it passed over Southern California on Jan. 16. The fire burned more than 1,863 acres and forced the evacuation of 3,700 people. (NASA via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Where stars are born

    An image captured by NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope shows the Orion Nebula, an immense stellar nursery some 1,500 light-years away. This false-color infrared view, released on Jan. 15, spans about 40 light-years across the region. The brightest portion of the nebula is centered on Orion's young, massive, hot stars, known as the Trapezium Cluster. But Spitzer also can detect stars still in the process of formation, seen here in red hues. (NASA / JPL-Caltech) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Cygnus takes flight

    Orbital Sciences Corp.'s Antares rocket rises from NASA's Wallops Flight Facility on Wallops Island, Va, on Jan. 9. The rocket sent Orbital's Cygnus cargo capsule on its first official resupply mission to the International Space Station. (Chris Perry / NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. A long, long time ago...

    This long-exposure picture from the Hubble Space Telescope, released Jan. 8, is the deepest image ever made of any cluster of galaxies. The cluster known as Abell 2744 appears in the foreground. It contains several hundred galaxies as they looked 3.5 billion years ago. Abell 2744 acts as a gravitational lens to warp space, brightening and magnifying images of nearly 3,000 distant background galaxies. The more distant galaxies appear as they did more than 12 billion years ago, not long after the Big Bang. (NASA / NASA via AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Frosty halo

    Sun dogs are bright spots that appear in the sky around the sun when light is refracted through ice crystals in the atmosphere. These sun dogs appeared on Jan. 5 amid brutally cold temperatures along Highway 83, north of Bismarck, N.D. The temperature was about 22 degrees below zero Fahrenheit, with a 50-below-zero wind chill.

    Slideshow: The Year in Space (Brian Peterson / The Bismarck Tribune via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
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