I was doing some research and came across this article in NASA SCIENCE/SCIENCE NEWS at
===================== I found it interesting and thought some of you
would to; especially if you follow any kind of news on the sun. March 12, 2010: What in the world is the sun up to now?
In today's issue of Science, NASA solar physicist David Hathaway reports that the top of the sun's Great Conveyor Belt has been running at
record-high speeds for the past five years.
"I believe this could explain the unusually deep solar minimum we've been experiencing," says Hathaway. "The high speed of the conveyor belt
challenges existing models of the solar cycle and it has forced us back to the drawing board for new ideas."
The Great Conveyor Belt is a massive circulating current of fire (hot plasma) within the sun. It has two branches, north and south, each taking about
40 years to complete one circuit. Researchers believe the turning of the belt controls the sunspot cycle.
Hathaway has been monitoring the conveyor belt using data from the Solar and Heliospheric Observatory (SOHO). The top of the belt skims the surface of
the sun, sweeping up knots of solar magnetism and carrying them toward the poles. SOHO is able to track those knots—Hathaway calls them "magnetic
elements"--and thus reveal the speed of the underlying flow.
"It's a little like measuring the speed of a river on Earth by clocking the leaves and twigs floating downstream," Hathaway explains.
SOHO's dataset extends all the way back to 1996 and spans a complete solar cycle. Last year, Lisa Rightmire, a student of Hathaway from the
University of Memphis, spent the entire summer measuring magnetic elements. When she plotted their speeds vs. time, she noticed how fast the conveyor
belt has been going.
A note about "fast": The Great Conveyor Belt is one of the biggest things in the whole solar system and by human standards it moves with massive
slowness. "Fast" in this context means 10 to 15 meters per second (20 to 30 miles per hour). A good bicyclist could easily keep up.
Below: The velocity of the Great Conveyor Belt (a.k.a. "meridianal flow") since 1996. Note the higher speeds after ~2004. credit: Hathaway and
Rightmire, 2010. [larger image]
The speed-up was surprising on two levels.
First, it coincided with the deepest solar minimum in nearly 100 years, contradicting models that say a fast-moving belt should boost sunspot
production. The basic idea is that the belt sweeps up magnetic fields from the sun's surface and drags them down to the sun's inner dynamo. There
the fields are amplified to form the underpinnings of new sunspots. A fast-moving belt should accelerate this process.
So where have all the sunspots been? The solar minimum of 2008-2009 was unusually deep and now the sun appears to be on the verge of a weak solar
Instead of boosting sunspots, Hathaway believes that a fast-moving Conveyor Belt can instead suppress them "by counteracting magnetic diffusion at
the sun's equator." He describes the process in detail in Science ("Variations in the Sun's Meridional Flow over a Solar Cycle," 12 March 2010,
The second surprise has to do with the bottom of the Conveyor Belt.
SOHO can only clock the motions of the visible top layer. The bottom is hidden by ~200,000 kilometers of overlying plasma. Nevertheless, an estimate
of its speed can be made by tracking sunspots.
"Sunspots are supposedly rooted to the bottom of the belt," says Hathaway. "So the motion of sunspots tells us how fast the belt is moving down
He's done that—plotted sunspot speeds vs. time since 1996—and the results don't make sense. "While the top of the conveyor belt has been moving
at record-high speed, the bottom seems to be moving at record-low speed. Another contradiction."
Right: An artist's concept of the Solar Dynamics Observatory (SDO). Launched in Feb. 2010, SDO will be able to look inside the sun to study the
conveyor belt in greater detail, perhaps solving the mysteries Hathaway and Rightmire have uncovered. [larger image]
Could it be that sunspots are not rooted to the bottom of the Conveyor Belt, after all? "That's one possibility" he notes. "Sunspots could be
moving because of dynamo waves or some other phenomenon not directly linked to the belt."
What researchers really need is a good look deep inside the sun. NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory, launched in February 2010, will provide that when
its instruments come online later this year. SDO is able to map the sun's interior using a technique called helioseismology. SOHO can do the same
thing, but not well enough to trace the Great Conveyor Belt all the way around. SDO's advanced sensors might reveal the complete circuit.
And then…? "It could be the missing piece we need to forecast the whole solar cycle," says Hathaway.
Stay tuned for that.
Author: Dr. Tony Phillips | Credit: Science@NASA
footnotes and more information
Variations in the Sun's Meridianal Flow over a Solar Cycle -- (Science)
Solar and Heliospheric Observatory-- SOHO home page