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Solar Photosphere  

L. P. Chitta, H. N. Smitha, and S. K. Solanki

The Sun is a G2V star with an effective temperature of 5780 K. As the nearest star to Earth and the biggest object in the solar system, it serves as a reference for fundamental astronomical parameters such as stellar mass, luminosity, and elemental abundances. It also serves as a plasma physics laboratory. A great deal of researchers’ understanding of the Sun comes from its electromagnetic radiation, which is close to that of a blackbody whose emission peaks at a wavelength of around 5,000 Å and extends into the near UV and infrared. The bulk of this radiation escapes from the solar surface, from a layer that is a mere 100 km thick. This surface from where the photons escape into the heliosphere and beyond, together with the roughly 400–500 km thick atmospheric layer immediately above it (where the temperature falls off monotonically with distance from the Sun), is termed the solar photosphere. Observations of the solar photosphere have led to some important discoveries in modern-day astronomy and astrophysics. At low spatial resolution, the photosphere is nearly featureless. However, naked-eye solar observations, the oldest of which can plausibly be dated back to 800 bc, have shown there to be occasional blemishes or spots. Systematic observations made with telescopes from the early 1600s onward have provided further information on the evolution of these sunspots whose typical spatial extent is 10,000 km at the solar surface. Continued observations of these sunspots later revealed that they increase and decrease in number with a period of about 11 years and that they actually are a manifestation of the Sun’s magnetic field (representing the first observation of an extraterrestrial magnetic field). This established the presence of magnetic cycles on the Sun responsible for the observed cyclic behavior of solar activity. Such magnetic activity is now known to exist in other stars as well. Superimposed on the solar blackbody spectrum are numerous spectral lines from different atomic species that arise due to the absorption of photons at certain wavelengths by those atoms, in the cooler photospheric plasma overlying the solar surface. These spectral lines provide diagnostics of the properties and dynamics of the underlying plasma (e.g., the granulation due to convection and the solar p-mode oscillations) and of the solar magnetic field. Since the early 20th century, researchers have used these spectral lines and the accompanying polarimetric signals to decode the physics of the solar photosphere and its magnetic structures, including sunspots. Modern observations with high spatial (0.15 arcsec, corresponding to 100 km on the solar surface) and spectral (10 mÅ) resolutions reveal a tapestry of the magnetized plasma with structures down to tens of kilometers at the photosphere (three orders of magnitude smaller than sunspots). Such observations, combined with advanced numerical models, provide further clues to the very important role of the magnetic field in solar and stellar structures and the variability in their brightness. Being the lowest directly observable layer of the Sun, the photosphere is also a window into the solar interior by means of helioseismology, which makes use of the p-mode oscillations. Furthermore, being the lowest layer of the solar atmosphere, the photosphere provides key insights into another long-standing mystery, that above the temperature-minimum (~500 km above the surface at ~4000 K), the plasma in the extended corona (invisible to the naked eye except during a total solar eclipse) is heated to temperatures up to 1,000 times higher than at the visible surface. The physics of the solar photosphere is thus central to the understanding of many solar and stellar phenomena.

Article

Solar Dynamo  

Robert Cameron

The solar dynamo is the action of flows inside the Sun to maintain its magnetic field against Ohmic decay. On small scales the magnetic field is seen at the solar surface as a ubiquitous “salt-and-pepper” disorganized field that may be generated directly by the turbulent convection. On large scales, the magnetic field is remarkably organized, with an 11-year activity cycle. During each cycle the field emerging in each hemisphere has a specific East–West alignment (known as Hale’s law) that alternates from cycle to cycle, and a statistical tendency for a North-South alignment (Joy’s law). The polar fields reverse sign during the period of maximum activity of each cycle. The relevant flows for the large-scale dynamo are those of convection, the bulk rotation of the Sun, and motions driven by magnetic fields, as well as flows produced by the interaction of these. Particularly important are the Sun’s large-scale differential rotation (for example, the equator rotates faster than the poles), and small-scale helical motions resulting from the Coriolis force acting on convective motions or on the motions associated with buoyantly rising magnetic flux. These two types of motions result in a magnetic cycle. In one phase of the cycle, differential rotation winds up a poloidal magnetic field to produce a toroidal field. Subsequently, helical motions are thought to bend the toroidal field to create new poloidal magnetic flux that reverses and replaces the poloidal field that was present at the start of the cycle. It is now clear that both small- and large-scale dynamo action are in principle possible, and the challenge is to understand which combination of flows and driving mechanisms are responsible for the time-dependent magnetic fields seen on the Sun.

Article

Solar Cycle  

Lidia van Driel-Gesztelyi and Mathew J. Owens

The Sun’s magnetic field drives the solar wind and produces space weather. It also acts as the prototype for an understanding of other stars and their planetary environments. Plasma motions in the solar interior provide the dynamo action that generates the solar magnetic field. At the solar surface, this is evident as an approximately 11-year cycle in the number and position of visible sunspots. This solar cycle is manifest in virtually all observable solar parameters, from the occurrence of the smallest detected magnetic features on the Sun to the size of the bubble in interstellar space that is carved out by the solar wind. Moderate to severe space-weather effects show a strong solar cycle variation. However, it is a matter of debate whether extreme space-weather follows from the 11-year cycle. Each 11-year solar cycle is actually only half of a solar magnetic “Hale” cycle, with the configuration of the Sun’s large-scale magnetic field taking approximately 22 years to repeat. At the start of a new solar cycle, sunspots emerge at mid-latitude regions with an orientation that opposes the dominant large-scale field, leading to an erosion of the polar fields. As the cycle progresses, sunspots emerge at lower latitudes. Around solar maximum, the polar field polarity reverses, but the sunspot orientation remains the same, leading to a build-up of polar field strength that peaks at the start of the next cycle. Similar magnetic cyclicity has recently been inferred at other stars.

Article

Solar Physics: Overview  

E.R. Priest

Solar physics is one of the liveliest branches of astrophysics at the current time, with many major advances that have been stimulated by observations from a series of space satellites and ground-based telescopes as well as theoretical models and sophisticated computational experiments. Studying the Sun is of key importance in physics for two principal reasons. Firstly, the Sun has major effects on the Earth and on its climate and space weather, as well as other planets of the solar system. Secondly, it represents a Rosetta stone, where fundamental astrophysical processes can be investigated in great detail. Yet, there are still major unanswered questions in solar physics, such as how the magnetic field is generated in the interior by dynamo action, how magnetic flux emerges through the solar surface and interacts with the overlying atmosphere, how the chromosphere and corona are heated, how the solar wind is accelerated, how coronal mass ejections are initiated and how energy is released in solar flares and high-energy particles are accelerated. Huge progress has been made on each of these topics since the year 2000, but there is as yet no definitive answer to any of them. When the answers to such puzzles are found, they will have huge implications for similar processes elsewhere in the cosmos but under different parameter regimes.

Article

Magnetohydrodynamic Equilibria  

Thomas Wiegelmann

Magnetohydrodynamic equilibria are time-independent solutions of the full magnetohydrodynamic (MHD) equations. An important class are static equilibria without plasma flow. They are described by the magnetohydrostatic equations j × B = ∇ p + ρ ∇ Ψ , ∇ × B = μ 0 j , ∇ · B = 0. B is the magnetic field, j the electric current density, p the plasma pressure, ρ the mass density, Ψ the gravitational potential, and µ 0 the permeability of free space. Under equilibrium conditions, the Lorentz force j × B is compensated by the plasma pressure gradient force and the gravity force. Despite the apparent simplicity of these equations, it is extremely difficult to find exact solutions due to their intrinsic nonlinearity. The problem is greatly simplified for effectively two-dimensional configurations with a translational or axial symmetry. The magnetohydrostatic (MHS) equations can then be transformed into a single nonlinear partial differential equation, the Grad–Shafranov equation. This approach is popular as a first approximation to model, for example, planetary magnetospheres, solar and stellar coronae, and astrophysical and fusion plasmas. For systems without symmetry, one has to solve the full equations in three dimensions, which requires numerically expensive computer programs. Boundary conditions for these systems can often be deduced from measurements. In several astrophysical plasmas (e.g., the solar corona), the magnetic pressure is orders of magnitudes higher than the plasma pressure, which allows a neglect of the plasma pressure in lowest order. If gravity is also negligible, Equation 1 then implies a force-free equilibrium in which the Lorentz force vanishes. Generalizations of MHS equilibria are stationary equilibria including a stationary plasma flow (e.g., stellar winds in astrophysics). It is also possible to compute MHD equilibria in rotating systems (e.g., rotating magnetospheres, rotating stellar coronae) by incorporating the centrifugal force. MHD equilibrium theory is useful for studying physical systems that slowly evolve in time. In this case, while one has an equilibrium at each time step, the configuration changes, often in response to temporal changes of the measured boundary conditions (e.g., the magnetic field of the Sun for modeling the corona) or of external sources (e.g., mass loading in planetary magnetospheres). Finally, MHD equilibria can be used as initial conditions for time-dependent MHD simulations. This article reviews the various analytical solutions and numerical techniques to compute MHD equilibria, as well as applications to the Sun, planetary magnetospheres, space, and laboratory plasmas.

Article

Solar Prominences  

Duncan H. Mackay

Solar prominences (or filaments) are cool dense regions of plasma that exist within the solar corona. Their existence is due to magnetic fields that support the dense plasma against gravity and insulate it from the surrounding hot coronal plasma. They can be found across all latitudes on the Sun, where their physical dimensions span a wide range of sizes (length ~60–600 Mm, height ~10–100 Mm, and width ~4–10 Mm). Their lifetime can be as long as a solar rotation (27 days), at the end of which they often erupt to initiate coronal mass ejections. When viewed at the highest spatial resolution, solar prominences are found to be composed of many thin co-aligned threads or vertical sheets. Within these structures, both horizontal and vertical motions of up to 10–20 kms−1 are observed, along with a wide variety of oscillations. At the present time, a lack of detailed observations of filament formation gives rise to a wide variety of theoretical models of this process. These models aim to explain both the formation of the prominence’s strongly sheared and highly non-potential magnetic field along with the origin of the dense plasma. Prominences also exhibit a large-scale hemispheric pattern such that “dextral” prominences containing negative magnetic helicity dominate in the northern hemisphere, while “sinistral” prominences containing positive helicity dominate in the south. Understanding this pattern is essential to understanding the build-up and release of free magnetic energy and helicity on the Sun. Future theoretical studies will have to be tightly coordinated with observations conducted at multiple wavelengths (i.e., energy levels) in order to unravel the secrets of these objects.