Photospheric Features

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Sunspots appear as dark spots on the surface of the Sun. Temperatures in the dark centers of sunspots drop to about 3700 K (compared to 5700 K for the surrounding photosphere). They typically last for several days, although very large ones may live for several weeks. Sunspots are magnetic regions on the Sun with magnetic field strengths thousands of times stronger than the Earth's magnetic field. Sunspots usually come in groups with two sets of spots. One set will have positive or north magnetic field while the other set will have negative or south magnetic field. The field is strongest in the darker parts of the sunspots - the umbra. The field is weaker and more horizontal in the lighter part - the penumbra.

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Faculae are bright areas that are usually most easily seen near the limb, or edge, of the solar disk. These are also magnetic areas but the magnetic field is concentrated in much smaller bundles than in sunspots. While the sunspots tend to make the Sun look darker, the faculae make it look brighter. During a sunspot cycle the faculae actually win out over the sunspots and make the Sun appear slightly (about 0.1%) brighter at sunspot maximum that at sunspot minimum.

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Granules are small (about 1000 km across) cellular features that cover the entire Sun except for those areas covered by sunspots. These features are the tops of convection cells where hot fluid rises up from the interior in the bright areas, spreads out across the surface, cools and then sinks inward along the dark lanes. Individual granules last for only about 20 minutes. The granulation pattern is continually evolving as old granules are pushed aside by newly emerging ones. The flow within the granules can reach supersonic speeds  of more than 7 km/s (15,000 mph) and produce sonic "booms" and other noise that generates waves on the Sun's surface.

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Supergranules are much larger versions of granules (about 35,000 km across) but are best seen in measurements of the "Doppler shift" where light from material moving toward us is shifted to the blue while light from material moving away from us is shifted to the red. These features also cover the entire Sun and the pattern is contually evolving. Individual supergranules last for a day or two and have flow speeds of about 0.5 km/s (1000 mph). The fluid flows observed in supergranules carry magnetic field bundles to the edges of the cells where they produce the chromospheric network.

Chromospheric Features

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The Chromospheric Network

The chromospheric network is a web-like pattern most easily seen in the emissions of the red line of hydrogen (H-alpha) and the ultraviolet line of calcium (Ca II K - from calcium atoms with one electron removed). The network outlines the supergranule cells and is due to the presence of bundles of magnetic field lines that are concentrated there by the fluid motions in the supergranules.

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Filaments and Plage

Filaments are dark, thread-like features seen in the red light of hydrogen (H-alpha). These are dense, somewhat cooler, clouds of material that are suspended above the solar surface by loops of magnetic field. Plage, the French word for beach, are bright patches surrounding sunspots that are best seen in H-alpha. Plage are also associated with concentrations of magnetic fields and form a part of the network of bright emissions that characterize the chromosphere.

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Prominences are dense clouds of material suspended above the surface of the Sun by loops of magnetic field. Prominences and filaments are actually the same things except that prominences are seen projecting out above the limb, or edge, of the Sun. Both filaments and prominences can remain in a quiet or quiescent state for days or weeks. However, as the magnetic loops that support them slowly change, filaments and prominences can erupt and rise off of the Sun over the course of a few minutes or hours.

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Spicules are small, jet-like eruptions seen throughout the chromospheric network. They appear as short dark streaks in the H-alpha image to the left (National Solar Observatory/Sacramento Peak). They last but a few minutes but in the process eject material off of the surface and outward into the hot corona at speeds of 20 to 30 km/s.

Coronal Features

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Helmet Streamers

Helmet streamers are large cap-like coronal structures with long pointed peaks that usually overlie sunspots and active regions. We often find a prominence or filament lying at the base of these structures. Helmet streamers are formed by a network of magnetic loops that connect the sunspots in active regions and help suspend the prominence material above the solar surface. The closed magnetic field lines trap the electrically charged coronal gases to form these relatively dense structures. The pointed peaks are formed by the action of the solar wind blowing away from the Sun in the spaces between the streamers.

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Polar Plumes

Polar plumes are long thin streamers that project outward from the Sun's north and south poles. We often find bright areas at the footpoints of these features that are associated with small magnetic regions on the solar surface. These structures are associated with the "open" magnetic field lines at the Sun's poles. The plumes are formed by the action of the solar wind in much the same way as the peaks on the helmet streamers.

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Coronal Loops

Coronal loops are found around sunspots and in active regions. These structures are associated with the closed magnetic field lines that connect magnetic regions on the solar surface. Many coronal loops last for days or weeks. Some loops, however, are associated with solar flares and are visible for much shorter periods. These loops contain denser material than their surroundings. The three-dimensional structure and the dynamics of these loops is an area of active research.

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Coronal Holes

Coronal holes are regions where the corona is dark. These features were discovered when X-ray telescopes were first flown above the earth's atmosphere to reveal the structure of the corona across the solar disc. Coronal holes are associated with "open" magnetic field lines and are often found at the Sun's poles. The high-speed solar wind is known to originate in coronal holes.

Solar Wind Features

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Magnetic Clouds

Magnetic Clouds are produced in the solar wind when solar eruptions (flares and coronal mass ejections) carry material off of the Sun along with embedded magnetic fields. These magnetic clouds can be detected in the solar wind through observations of the solar wind characteristics - wind speed, density, and magnetic field strength and direction.

Corotating Interactive Regions

Corotating Interactive Regions (CIRs) are regions within the solar wind where streams of material moving at different speeds collide and interact with each other. The speed of the solar wind varies from less than 300 km/s (about half a million miles per hour) to over 800 km/s depending upon the conditions in the corona where the solar wind has its source. Low speed winds come from the regions above helmet streamers while high speed winds come from coronal holes. As the Sun rotates these various streams rotate as well (co-rotation) and produce a pattern in the solar wind much like that of a rotating lawn sprinkler. However, if a slow moving stream is followed by a fast moving stream the faster moving material will catch-up to the slower material and plow into it. This interaction produces shock waves that can accelerate particles to very high speeds.

Composition Variations

The chemical composition of the solar wind has several interesting aspects that hint at physical processes occuring in the solar wind source regions. The solar wind composition is different from the composition of the solar surface and shows variations that are associated with solar activity and solar features.