An international group of scientists led by the Mullard Space Science
Laboratory (MSSL), University College London, has discovered important new
evidence that points to the cataclysmic events that trigger a solar flare
and the mechanisms that drive its subsequent evolution.

The new results, described today at the RAS National Astronomy Meeting in
Birmingham by Dr. Louise Harra of MSSL, were obtained by using the
ESA-NASA SOHO spacecraft to study an X-7 class flare -one of the most
powerful solar flares of recent years- which exploded on the Sun’s surface
on 15 July 2002.

Detailed analysis shows that the 15 July 2002 flare was a complex event
with three eruptions -each one triggering the next one like a domino
effect. The solar flare’s explosive power was 5,000 million times greater
than an atomic bomb, hurling a billion tonnes of hot gas towards the Earth
at speeds of around half a million miles an hour.

The SOHO data show that the explosion was triggered by the sudden
emergence of a strongly magnetised gas (plasma) from below the Sun’s
surface, close to an existing region of strong magnetic field. When the
magnetic fields in these two regions collided, they released phenomenal
amounts of energy.

The data showed that the entrained gas was heated to a temperature of up
to 20 million degrees Celsius before it soared into the solar atmosphere –
the corona – at a speed of 90,000 mph.

The analysis of this flare contradicts the standard model of how flares
are created. Until now, it has been believed that magnetic field lines
from the core of the active region become entangled and reconnect high in
the corona.

“In the case of the July 2002 flare, magnetic reconnection had to occur
over a much wider area than expected,” explained Dr. Harra. “The data show
that small-scale magnetic disturbances around the main active region
snowballed until they broke through the weak field that blanketed the

“This magnetic build-up swept away the existing magnetic field lines that
overlay the entire active region, so allowing the core field to reconnect.
We were able to measure this by looking for flashes of ultraviolet light
and fast-flowing gas.

“This is important, because we have observed the flows of hot gas for the
first time, enabling us to see that several small flares combine to create
a major explosion. This may eventually enable us to predict large flares
before they erupt.”

This research gives us a tantalising glimpse of the new insights that can
be expected when Solar-B, a joint UK-Japan-US space mission to study the
Sun, is launched from southern Japan in summer 2006.

“Solar-B will allow us to study in unprecedented detail the forces that
create these explosions,” said Dr. Harra, the UK project scientist for

“The spacecraft’s polar orbit will allow its instruments to stay in
continuous contact with the Sun for nine months each year,” explained
Professor Len Culhane of MSSL, the UK Principal Investigator on Solar-B.

“Onboard are instruments that will for the first time allow us to measure
the strength and flow direction of the magnetic field as well as the flows
of gas seen in the atmosphere in response to colliding magnetic fields.”

These advanced capabilities will ultimately enable scientists to predict
the occurrence of flares and other eruptive events on the Sun, such as
coronal mass ejections – a capability that will become even more important
with the increasing interest in sending humans to Mars.

The Extreme Ultraviolet Imaging Spectrometer Instrument that will carry
out these measurements on Solar-B was built in the UK, under the
leadership of MSSL. The instrument is now being integrated with the
spacecraft in Japan.


On Thursday 7 April, Dr. Harra can be contacted via the NAM press office
(see above).

Normal contact details:

Dr. Louise Harra
Mullard Space Science Laboratory – UCL
Holmbury St Mary, Dorking
Surrey RH5 6NT
Tel: +44 (0)1483-204141


Solar flares are dramatic eruptions in the Sun’s corona (the extremely hot
outer atmosphere) which blast high-energy particles into space at the
speed of light. They often trigger huge coronal mass ejections – vast
clouds of gas – that may envelop the Earth, causing magnetic storms, power
cuts and disruption of communications.

The 2005 RAS National Astronomy Meeting is hosted by the University of
Birmingham, and sponsored by the Royal Astronomical and the UK Particle
Physics and Astronomy Research Council (PPARC).


SOHO images of the flare that occurred on the 15 July 2002:


The SOHO image at left shows that the source of the flare was in the
centre of the Sun, as seen from Earth. As a result, the particles from the
flare and the associated coronal mass eruption were directed towards the
Earth, leading to bright auroras. The images on the right zoom in on the
region of the explosion. The relative sizes of the Earth and the source
region are shown to scale. The red features show gas at 20 million degrees
that is held together by strong magnetic fields. Although the time
sequence of images covers only 80 seconds, it is clear that a huge amount
of gas is being blasted away from the Sun.

Flare movie (mpg file):