The discovery of “super-tornadoes” rising above the surface of the sun may help solve the mystery of how our home star heats it wispy outer atmosphere to a million degrees. There is plenty of energy below the 5780° visible surface to do the job, but solar physicists have long argued about how that energy heats the corona, seen as an encircling crown of light that emerges during a total solar eclipse.
Now a group reports online today in Nature that, using both spaceborne and ground-based telescopes, it has detected 1500-kilometer-wide swirls of solar atmosphere rising from the surface into the corona. Each lasts 10 to 15 minutes, and there are about 11,000 of them on the sun at a time. Computer simulations (picture) show how similar-looking the twisting magnetic field lines of a solar tornado are to real tornadoes. Now solar physicists must figure out how much energy super-tornadoes deliver compared with other proposed energy sources.