“Just So Science” – The Solar Surfer

By Elf Eldridge 13/06/2011

Surfer waves on the solar surface
"Surfer" waves on the solar surface

Yet another [1] gorgeous picture from NASA’s Solar Dynamic Observatory – this one capturing some serious waves on the outer surface of the sun. These are almost identical to earth-based surfing waves, well apart from the fact that they are the size of the USA and are composed of plasmas around 6000 degrees Celsius. They form when two different fluids flow past each other (in this case it’s the same fluid at different temperatures), shown in this video and are caused by “Kelvin Helmholtz Instability“. This happens on earth as well and can result in the formation of the below cloud shape as the dense clouds ‘mix’ with the lighter air at their edges. Or more familiarly when you pour cold milk into your tea or coffee!

Kelvin Helmholz wave clouds.
Kelvin Helmholz wave clouds.

Researchers at NASA believe that the existence of the waves may explain why the corona, the ‘atmosphere’ of the sun, is so much hotter than current models predict it should be – the waves provide an ‘energy transfer pathway’ from the hot surface to the cooler corona, other than standard convection and radiation.

Some people (probably not those that read Sciblogs though!) say “So What?!” to discoveries like this, as it has little if any impact on our daily lives. However the great thing about science is that you never know where knowledge leads. By example, I recently attended a talk about the movement of electrons in graphene, which has the potential to ‘revolutionise’ the electronics industry, so understanding conduction in this is pretty important! Turns out the only reason we understand how this happens is because someone has already done much of the hard calculations whilst studying the movement of ‘neutrinos‘ (tiny mass-less(ish), charge-less particles produced in the sun and other stars) So before discrediting fundamental and blue-sky science, it always pays to remember that you never know when knowledge may come in handy!


[1] http://www.physorg.com/news/2011-06-solar-dynamics-observatory-surfer-sun.html