principal investigator Robert Lin, UC Berkeley professor
of physics. Courtesy of Solar Max 2000
flares, the most powerful explosions in the solar system,
typically are associated with sunspots in "active regions"
of strong magnetic field in the solar atmosphere. Sunspots
form where the sun's magnetic field lines arc out of the
surface in bright loops, and flare explosions seem to emanate
from these loops.
explanation for solar flares dates from the 1950s and involves
magnetic reconnection. As the sun's strong magnetic field
lines reach out into space they sometimes cross or reconnect
within the corona or atmosphere of the sun. In seconds,
the short circuit heats the gas to tens of millions of degrees,
and perhaps as high as 100 million Kelvin, accelerating
electrons and protons to speeds approaching the speed of
light. The electrons and protons slamming into gas particles,
mostly hydrogen, in the lower corona and chromosphere produce
X-rays and gamma-rays, respectively.
principal investigator Robert Lin discusses the mysteries
of solar flares.
microflares last for seconds, larger flares may emit X-rays
for tens of minutes and remain visible for hours. The large
ones extend for as much as 100,000 km above the solar surface,
nearly 10 times the diameter of the Earth.
of what scientists know about flares has come from ground-based
observations at visible and radio wavelengths and from instruments
aboard Skylab, the Solar Maximum Mission, the Japanese/U.S.
Yohkoh spacecraft and other spacecraft. X-rays have been
recorded from flares for more than 30 years.
will have the finest angular and spectral resolution of
any hard X-ray or gamma-ray instrument flown in space, providing
scientists with the first high fidelity color movies of
flares in their highest energy emissions. The data will
help scientists pinpoint where and how flares form.