Washington, June 5 : New satellite data has shown that the Sun produces giant tornado-like rotating jets that stretch thousands of miles into space.
According to a report in National Geographic News, the solar tornadoes typically last about ten minutes and occur near the sun's poles.
"These solar tornadoes are almost a thousand times faster than a terrestrial tornado and are very big," said Spiros Patsourakos, a researcher at George Mason University in the US.
Scientists have known since the 1990s that jets of gas wider than North America were erupting from the sun's poles, but it is only now that they discovered these jets are rotating.
That's because a new pair of NASA satellites called STEREO allowed the features to be observed from two directions at once, revealing their three-dimensional structures.
"The main element (of the new observations) is that the erupting structures possess twist," said Patsourakos.
Although such ejections are well studied, the twisting hadn't been seen before, partly because superbright solar flares make it difficult for satellite instruments to see their details.
But on April 9, 2008, the flare was out of sight, just around the edge of the sun.
This allowed the scientists' instruments to take detailed images of the ejection without being blinded by the flare itself.
This advantageous angle allowed instruments from the Japanese spacecraft Hinode to spot the twist.
Unlike the polar jets in which the twist appeared quite simple, the ejection twist proved to be much more complex, said Ed DeLuca, an astronomer at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. Parts of it were rotating clockwise, while others were rotating counter-clockwise.
According to Etienne Pariat, also of George Mason University, the twist comes from the sun's magnetic field.
"The magnetic field lines act like a spring, which expands and jumps outward," said Pariat, who has used computer simulations to model the forces producing the jets.
The forces originate in the solar interior, he added, where the sun's rotation twists the magnetic field.
"But the twist cannot be stored, so it must be ejected," said Pariat.
Understanding these forces is important because other solar phenomena can affect our lives here on Earth, according to Patsourakos. "The jets may be a Rosetta stone for understanding all kinds of ejections from the sun," he said.