NASA - Solar 'Current of Fire' Speeds Up
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.
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.
Right: An artist's concept of the sun's Great Conveyor Belt. 
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.
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. 
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 cycle.
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, v327, 1350-1352).
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.
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.
|footnotes and more information|
Solar and Heliospheric Observatory-- SOHO home page