Who remembers that cheap yet endlessly entertaining bargain-bin toy “Wooly Willy“? You know, the goofy bald face beneath a plastic bubble, filled with metal shavings that could be moved with a magnet-pen to give Willy different hairstyles and mustaches? Then you’re already familiar with magnetic field lines, which are essentially a way of visualizing an otherwise invisible magnetic field. In the case of Wooly Willy, the metal shavings outlined the magnetic field produced by the magnet-pen, and helped you give him those sweet ‘staches and hairdos. The magnetic field of the Sun — a ball of roiling plasma with a diameter of about 864,948.7 miles — is a bit more dynamic.
In a recently released NASA GSFC video, solar physicist Holly Gilbert narrates a wild and mesmerizing visualization of the Sun’s magnetic field, created using a vector magnetograph (“a type of imaging telescope that can estimate the 3-D vector of the magnetic field on a distant body”) and computer modeling. In the video, we see the Sun’s magnetic field lines as they change over the course of four years, based on the rotation of the Sun and the movement of its plasma.
Understanding the jiggles and twists of the Sun’s magnetic field is critical for several reasons, chief among them that changes in it can cause gigantic coronal mass ejections (CME) or solar flares. Both of these events can be detrimental to life here on Earth, as charged particles screaming in from the star can fry things like satellites, electric power grids, and global communications systems.
With NASA scientists keeping an eye on the Sun’s magnetic movements, we can better protect our electronic and communications equipment in the event of a solar event. And if a CME with the power of over 1 billion hydrogen bombs is ejected from the Sun directly at us, we can run around and dance naked before unstoppable destruction sends us back to the Stone Age.
What do you think about this model of the Sun’s magnetic field? Let us know in the comments section below!
Image: NASA Goddard