This dynamic computer model of our sun reveals the behavior of its invisible magnetic structure. The pink and green indicate open magnetic field lines that reach out into space, while the “closed” white lines loop back around toward the sun’s surface. NASA Goddard Space Flight Center solar scientist Dr. Holly Gilbert explains. Plus more from NASA.gov:
Follow this up with The sun, our closest star, in a stunning 4K time lapse animation, and Space Weather: Storms from the Sun.
So how do we even see these invisible fields? First, we observe the material on the sun. The sun is made of plasma, a gas-like state of matter in which electrons and ions have separated, creating a super-hot mix of charged particles. When charged particles move, they naturally create magnetic fields, which in turn have an additional effect on how the particles move. The plasma in the sun, therefore, sets up a complicated system of cause and effect in which plasma flows inside the sun – churned up by the enormous heat produced by nuclear fusion at the center of the sun – create the sun’s magnetic fields. This system is known as the solar dynamo.
We can observe the shape of the magnetic fields above the sun’s surface because they guide the motion of that plasma – the loops and towers of material in the corona glow brightly in EUV images. Additionally, the footpoints on the sun’s surface, or photosphere, of these magnetic loops can be more precisely measured using an instrument called a magnetograph, which measures the strength and direction of magnetic fields.
Next, scientists turn to models. They combine their observations – measurements of the magnetic field strength and direction on the solar surface – with an understanding of how solar material moves and magnetism to fill in the gaps. Simulations such as the Potential Field Source Surface, or PFSS, model – shown in the accompanying video – can help illustrate exactly how magnetic fields undulate around the sun. Models like PFSS can give us a good idea of what the solar magnetic field looks like in the sun’s corona and even on the sun’s far side.