WRITER: Minerva Baumann, 575-646-7566, mbauma46@nmsu.edu
SOURCES: Juie Shetye, jshetye@nmsu.edu; Oana Vesa, ovesa@nmsu.edu

Imagine a tornado the size of Texas. Now imagine studying 86 of those tornadoes on the surface of the sun.

New Mexico State University Astronomy Assistant Professor Juie Shetye and Oana Vesa, astronomy Ph.D. candidate, are researching the impact of these massive storms both in the solar atmosphere and ultimately on Earth.

Vesa will give a poster presentation "Characterization of Chromospheric Swirls on the Quiet Sun," at the conference of the American Astronomical Society in Albuquerque. She will present her research between 9 and 10 a.m. Monday, June 5, in the exhibit hall of the Albuquerque Convention Center. She also will participate in a news conference about this research later that day at 2:15 p.m. at the Albuquerque Convention Center, Room 215.

"The solar atmosphere easily generates storms similar to tornadoes or hurricanes on Earth," Vesa said. "Rooted to the surface of the sun by strong magnetic field concentrations, the twisting of the magnetic field and plasma gives them their swirling appearance. While similar to Earth-based tornadoes, solar tornadoes are much larger, much faster and much more powerful."

"It's a relatively new field," Shetye said. "Oana is looking at data from multiple data sets, multiple viewing angles to see if we can better understand these phenomena. This is the first study that has a statistically significant number of events. Studies in the past have had maybe 10 or 12 events. Oana has 86 events."

Previous studies have centered on data from Europe but Vesa's research uses data from the Dunn Solar Telescope, now managed by NMSU. The solar observatory is in Sunspot, New Mexico in the Sacramento Mountains. The university also manages three other telescopes at the Apache Point Observatory a few miles away.

The sun has an atmosphere structured similar to Earth's, with three distinct regions: the photosphere, the chromosphere and the corona. According to NASA's space-based Solar Dynamics Observatory, there may be as many as 10,000 magnetic solar tornadoes visible on the surface of the sun at any given moment.

"My research focuses on a particular subset of solar tornadoes that we call chromospheric swirls that we see in the sun's middle atmosphere," Vesa said. "Solar tornadoes are important because they can couple different layers of the atmosphere. In other words, they not only are rotating, but also propagating upwards, so they're able to transfer mass and energy throughout the solar atmosphere."

Solar tornadoes can cause what's called a prominence, an arch of mass that extends above the solar surface. If the magnetic field lines within the prominence become tangled, they can build up excess energy, which like a stretched rubber band, can slingshot plasma beyond the sun's corona. A coronal mass ejection is different than a solar flare. It's more like a cannonball, an immense cloud of magnetized particles hurled into space.

Coronal mass ejections can cause the kind of space weather events that impact the technology we rely on every day. Smartphones, GPS and other devices depend on communication satellites, which can be disrupted by space weather between the Earth and the sun.

"This is the first time we are looking at a large enough number of events where we could actually say, for example, that 10% of these are driven by certain forces and 10% are driven by something else," Shetye said. "But Oana has found something unique about these solar tornadoes."

When hurricanes on Earth collide, they can merge forming superstorms like Hurricane Sandy. Vesa discovered that when solar tornadoes clash, they die.

"The evidence she's getting shows that when these solar tornadoes interact with each other, they destroy each other," Shetye said. "They destroy their shape. We very rarely get a case where one feeds into another and it becomes a massive event. It's something that we are looking at."

Shetye believes with the field being understudied and Vesa's statistics being decent sized, this research is opening up new areas of study.

"There's still a lot that we don't understand about the formation and evolution of these structures," said Vesa. "But further analysis of this data will allow us to advance the understanding of the solar atmosphere."

The full article can be seen at https://newsroom.nmsu.edu/news/nmsu-researchers-study-solar-tornadoes--impact--news-conference-in-albuquerque-june-5/s/0bf4893e-8456-4c9c-b68e-1a4f1f88cf5b

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