Belfast Telegraph

Tuesday 22 July 2014

Nasa and Queen's University Belfast join forces

Queen's set for 2010 rocket flight to solve unique sun conundrum

For decades, scientists have puzzled over the conundrum of why the sun gets hotter as you move away from it - and now researchers in Belfast have made a discovery that could illuminate the dark side of the sun.

As a result, Queen's will be involved in a rocket flight in 2010 aimed at photographing the sun's atmosphere.

Many scientists believe that waves travel from the surface of the sun and release their energy in the outer layers of the solar atmosphere - rather like ocean waves travelling across the sea before releasing their energy when they crash onto the shore.

The Astrophysics Research Centre team at Queen's was called in by Nasa's Goddard Space Flight Center after a rocket flight produced 145 spectral images of the outer atmosphere of the sun. The highly sensitive Extreme Ultraviolet Normal Incidence Spectrograph (EUNIS) was launched from White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico. Traditionally, such images taken by satellites run at just one per minute, but EUNIS produced images at one per 2.5 seconds - at much lower cost.

Queen's PhD student David Jess has been poring over the images as he probes the processes taking place within the sun's atmosphere and he has discovered a barrier 3,000km from the surface of the sun where the waves appear to 'break'.

"Common sense tells us that the further you travel away from a heat source, the cooler the air will be. The sun, however, doesn't obey common sense. The fact that the temperature increases as you move away from the surface of the sun has been baffling solar physicists for decades. EUNIS has allowed us to test mechanisms for heat transfer to these outer reaches of the sun's atmosphere."

The Queen's Solar Physics Group, led by Dr Mihalis Mathioudakis, has been at the forefront of rapid wave observations in the sun for many years.

"This is an amazing discovery as we try to aim to raise the understanding of waves in our sun and finally comprehend why the outer layers of the sun are hotter than its surface. The involvement of our group with Nasa is providing a huge impact on the solar physics community. Queen's will be a key player in a future flight of EUNIS scheduled for mid-2010," he said.

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