Featured Research

from universities, journals, and other organizations

Sun Is Not A Perfect Sphere, NASA Spacecraft Finds

Date:
October 6, 2008
Source:
NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center
Summary:
Scientists using NASA's RHESSI spacecraft have measured the roundness of the sun with unprecedented precision. They find that it is not a perfect sphere. During years of high solar activity the sun develops a thin "cantaloupe skin" that significantly increases its apparent oblateness: the sun's equatorial radius becomes slightly larger than its polar radius.

"Cantaloupe ridges" on the sun. The glowing white magnetic network is what gives the sun its extra oblateness during times of high solar activity. Amateur astronomer Gary Palmer took the picture in July 2005 using a violet calcium-K filter.
Credit: Gary Palmer

Scientists using NASA’s RHESSI spacecraft have measured the roundness of the sun with unprecedented precision. They find that it is not a perfect sphere. During years of high solar activity the sun develops a thin “cantaloupe skin” that significantly increases its apparent oblateness: the sun’s equatorial radius becomes slightly larger than its polar radius.

Their results appear the Oct. 2nd edition of Science Express.

“The sun is the biggest and therefore smoothest object in the solar system, perfect at the 0.001% level because of its extremely strong gravity,” says study co-author Hugh Hudson of UC Berkeley. “Measuring its exact shape is no easy task.”

The team accomplished the task by analyzing data from the Reuven Ramaty High-Energy Solar Spectroscopic Imager, RHESSI for short, an x-ray/gamma-ray space telescope launched in 2002 on a mission to study solar flares. Although RHESSI was never intended to measure the roundness of the sun, it has turned out ideal for the purpose. RHESSI observes the solar disk through a narrow slit and spins at 15 rpm. The spacecraft’s rapid rotation and high data sampling rate (necessary to catch fast solar flares) make it possible for investigators to trace the shape of the sun with systematic errors much less than any previous study. Their technique is particularly sensitive to small differences in polar vs. equatorial radius or “oblateness.”

“We have found that the surface of the sun has rough structure: bright ridges arranged in a network pattern, as on the surface of a cantaloupe but much more subtle,” describes Hudson. During active phases of the solar cycle, these ridges emerge around the sun’s equator, brightening and fattening the “stellar waist.” At the time of RHESSI’s measurements in 2004, ridges increased the sun’s apparent equatorial radius by an angle of 10.77 +- 0.44 milli-arcseconds, or about the same as the width of a human hair viewed one mile away.

“That may sound like a very small angle, but it is in fact significant,” says Alexei Pevtsov, RHESSI Program Scientist at NASA Headquarters. Tiny departures from perfect roundness can, for example, affect the sun’s gravitational pull on Mercury and skew tests of Einstein’s theory of relativity that depend on careful measurements of the inner planet’s orbit. Small bulges are also telltale signs of hidden motions inside the sun. For instance, if the sun had a rapidly rotating core left over from early stages of star formation, and if that core were tilted with respect to its outer layers, the result would be surface bulging. “RHESSI’s precision measurements place severe constraints on any such models.”

The “cantaloupe ridges” are magnetic in nature. They outline giant, bubbling convection cells on the surface of the sun called “supergranules.” Supergranules are like bubbles in a pot of boiling water amplified to the scale of a star; on the sun they measure some 30,000 km across (twice as wide as Earth) and are made of seething hot magnetized plasma. Magnetic fields at the center of these bubbles are swept out to the edge where they form ridges of magnetism. The ridges are most prominent during years around Solar Max when the sun’s inner dynamo “revs up” to produce the strongest magnetic fields. Solar physicists have known about supergranules and the magnetic network they produce for many years, but only now has RHESSI revealed their unexpected connection to the sun’s oblateness.

“When we subtract the effect of the magnetic network, we get a ‘true’ measure of the sun’s shape resulting from gravitational forces and motions alone,” says Hudson. “The corrected oblateness of the non-magnetic sun is 8.01 +- 0.14 milli arcseconds, near the value expected from simple rotation.”

Further analysis of RHESSI oblateness data may help researchers detect a long-sought type of seismic wave echoing through the interior of the sun: the gravitational oscillation or “g-mode.” Detecting g-modes would open a new frontier in solar physics—the study of the sun’s internal core.

The paper reporting these results, “A large excess in apparent solar oblateness due to surface magnetism,” was authored by Martin Fivian, Hugh Hudson, Robert Lin and Jabran Zahid, and appears in the Oct. 2nd issue of Science Express.


Story Source:

The above story is based on materials provided by NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center. Note: Materials may be edited for content and length.


Cite This Page:

NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center. "Sun Is Not A Perfect Sphere, NASA Spacecraft Finds." ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 6 October 2008. <www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2008/10/081005192607.htm>.
NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center. (2008, October 6). Sun Is Not A Perfect Sphere, NASA Spacecraft Finds. ScienceDaily. Retrieved September 18, 2014 from www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2008/10/081005192607.htm
NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center. "Sun Is Not A Perfect Sphere, NASA Spacecraft Finds." ScienceDaily. www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2008/10/081005192607.htm (accessed September 18, 2014).

Share This



More Space & Time News

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Featured Research

from universities, journals, and other organizations


Featured Videos

from AP, Reuters, AFP, and other news services

Boeing, SpaceX to Send Astronauts to Space Station

Boeing, SpaceX to Send Astronauts to Space Station

AFP (Sep. 17, 2014) — NASA selected Boeing and SpaceX on Tuesday to build America's next spacecraft to carry astronauts to the International Space Station (ISS) by 2017, opening the way to a new chapter in human spaceflight. Duration: 01:13 Video provided by AFP
Powered by NewsLook.com
East Coast Treated To Rare Meteor Sighting

East Coast Treated To Rare Meteor Sighting

Newsy (Sep. 16, 2014) — Numerous residents along the East Coast reported seeing a bright meteor flash through the sky Sunday night. Video provided by Newsy
Powered by NewsLook.com
Space Race Pits Bezos Vs Musk

Space Race Pits Bezos Vs Musk

Reuters - Business Video Online (Sep. 16, 2014) — Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos' startup will team up with Boeing and Lockheed to develop rocket engines as Elon Musk races to have his rockets certified. Fred Katayama reports. Video provided by Reuters
Powered by NewsLook.com
NASA Picks Boeing and SpaceX to Ferry Astronauts

NASA Picks Boeing and SpaceX to Ferry Astronauts

AP (Sep. 16, 2014) — NASA is a giant step closer to launching Americans again from U.S. soil. It has announced it has picked Boeing and SpaceX to transport astronauts to the International Space Station in the next few years. (Sept. 16) Video provided by AP
Powered by NewsLook.com

Search ScienceDaily

Number of stories in archives: 140,361

Find with keyword(s):
 
Enter a keyword or phrase to search ScienceDaily for related topics and research stories.

Save/Print:
Share:  

Breaking News:
from the past week

In Other News

... from NewsDaily.com

Science News

Health News

Environment News

Technology News



Save/Print:
Share:  

Free Subscriptions


Get the latest science news with ScienceDaily's free email newsletters, updated daily and weekly. Or view hourly updated newsfeeds in your RSS reader:

Get Social & Mobile


Keep up to date with the latest news from ScienceDaily via social networks and mobile apps:

Have Feedback?


Tell us what you think of ScienceDaily -- we welcome both positive and negative comments. Have any problems using the site? Questions?
Mobile iPhone Android Web
Follow Facebook Twitter Google+
Subscribe RSS Feeds Email Newsletters
Latest Headlines Health & Medicine Mind & Brain Space & Time Matter & Energy Computers & Math Plants & Animals Earth & Climate Fossils & Ruins