The origin of the sun’s magnetic field could lie close to its surface | Science & Technology

The sun’s surface is a brilliant display of sunspots and flares driven by the solar magnetic field, which is internally generated through a process called dynamo action. Astrophysicists have assumed that the sun’s field is generated deep within the star. But an MIT study finds that the sun’s activity may be shaped by a much shallower process.

In a paper appearing in Nature, researchers at MIT, the University of Edinburgh, and elsewhere find that the sun’s magnetic field could arise from instabilities within the sun’s outermost layers.

The team generated a precise model of the sun’s surface and found that when they simulated certain perturbations, or changes in the flow of plasma (ionized gas) within the top 5 to 10 percent of the sun, these surface changes were enough to generate realistic magnetic field patterns, with similar characteristics to what astronomers have observed on the sun. In contrast, their simulations in deeper layers produced less realistic solar activity.

The findings suggest that sunspots and flares could be a product of a shallow magnetic field, rather than a field that originates deeper in the sun, as scientists had largely assumed.

“The features we see when looking at the sun, like the corona that many people saw during the recent solar eclipse, sunspots, and solar flares, are all associated with the sun’s magnetic field,” says study author Keaton Burns, a research scientist in MIT’s Department of Mathematics. “We show that isolated perturbations near the sun’s surface, far from the deeper layers, can grow over time to potentially produce the magnetic structures we see.”

If the sun’s magnetic field does in fact arise from its outermost layers, this might give scientists a better chance at forecasting flares and geomagnetic storms that have the potential to damage satellites and telecommunications systems.

“We know the dynamo acts like a giant clock with many complex interacting parts,” says co-author Geoffrey Vasil, a researcher at the…


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