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Image - Sunspot close-up

Image of the week - Sunspot close-up


The interface between a sunspot's umbra (dark center) and penumbra (lighter outer region) shows a complex structure with narrow, almost horizontal (lighter to white) filaments embedded in a background having a more vertical (darker to black) magnetic field. Farther out, extended patches of horizontal field dominate. For the first time, NCAR scientists and colleagues have modeled this complex structure in a comprehensive 3D computer simulation, giving scientists their first glimpse below the visible surface to understand the underlying physical processes. © UCAR, image courtesy Matthias Rempel, NCAR

Using a supercomputer, an international team of scientists led by the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) in the US and the Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research (MPS) in Germany created the first-ever comprehensive computer model of sunspots. The resulting visuals capture both scientific detail and un-earthly beauty.

The high-resolution simulations open the way for researchers to learn more about the vast mysterious dark patches on the sun's surface. Sunspots are the most striking manifestations of solar magnetism on the solar surface, and they are associated with massive ejections of charged plasma that can cause geomagnetic storms and disrupt communications and navigational systems. They also contribute to variations in overall solar output, which can affect weather on Earth and exert an influence on climate patterns.

Ever since outward flows from the center of sunspots were discovered a century ago, scientists have worked toward explaining the complex structure of sunspots, whose number peaks and wanes during an 11-year cycle.

Creating such detailed simulations would not have been possible even as recently as a few years ago, before the latest generation of supercomputers and a growing array of instruments to observe the sun.

Partly because of such new technology, scientists have made advances in solving the equations that describe the physics of solar processes.

The work was supported by the National Science Foundation, NCAR's sponsor. The research team improved a computer model developed at MPS, that built upon numerical codes for magnetized fluids that had been created at the University of Chicago.

-Dan Drollette, iSGTW

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