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Towering solar tornado discovered on the Sun

Paul Sutherland, Feature writer
Mar 30, 2012, 7:00 UTC

Space scientists have observed a powerful tornado many times wider than the Earth spinning in the Sun's atmosphere.

The event filmed from a satellite revealed superheated gas as hot as 50,000 – 2,000,000 Kelvin spiralling upwards at speeds of up to 300,000km per hour. Air in similar whirlwinds on Earth can reach 150km per hour.

The solar super-tornado was discovered by astronomers Dr Xing Li and Dr Huw Morgan, of Aberystwyth University, Wales. They showed a movie of the monster, captured on September 25, 2011, using the Atmospheric Imaging Assembly telescope on board NASA's Solar Dynamic Observatory in space, at the National Astronomy Meeting in Manchester.

Dr Morgan said: "This unique and spectacular tornado must play a role in triggering global solar storms."

The tornadoes often occur at the root of huge coronal mass ejections - solar storms that, when aimed towards Earth can damage satellites and even knock out the electricity grid."

Scientists have found that solar tornadoes drag winding magnetic field and electric currents into the high atmosphere of the Sun. It is possible that the magnetic field and currents play a key role in driving CMEs.

Solar Dynamic Observatory was launched in February 2010 and is in a circular, geosynchronous orbit around the Earth at an altitude of 36,000 kilometres. It monitors constantly solar variations to help scientists understand the cause of the change and eventually have a capability to predict the space weather.

The Manchester meeting also heard that the UK's Met Office is to extend its services to forecast weather in space and on other planets.

The UK weathermen are adapting their predictive tool, called the Unified Model, to help understand the impact of solar storms on the Earth as well as what goes on in the atmospheres of exoplanets around other stars.

When they eventually examine rocky Earth-like planets, the process could even reveal whether there is a biosphere and evidence of alien life.