SDO and STEREO Spot Something New On the Sun

One day in the fall of 2011, Neil Sheeley, a solar scientist at the Naval Research Laboratory in Washington, D.C., did what he always does look through the daily images of the sun from NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory (SDO).

But on this day he saw something he'd never noticed before: a pattern of cells with bright centers and dark boundaries occurring in the sun's atmosphere, the corona. These cells looked somewhat like a cell pattern that occurs on the sun's surface similar to the bubbles that rise to the top of boiling water but it was a surprise to find this pattern higher up in the corona, which is normally dominated by bright loops and dark coronal holes.

Sheeley discussed the images with his Naval Research Laboratory colleague Harry Warren, and together they set out to learn more about the cells. Their search included observations from a fleet of NASA spacecraft called the Heliophysics System Observatory that provided separate viewpoints from different places around the sun. They describe the properties of these previously unreported solar features, dubbed "coronal cells," in a paper published online in The Astrophysical Journal on March 20, 2012 that will appear in print on April 10.

The coronal cells occur in areas between coronal holes colder and less dense areas of the corona seen as dark regions in images and "filament channels" which mark the boundaries between sections of upward-pointing magnetic fields and downward-pointing ones. Understanding how these cells evolve can provide clues as to the changing magnetic fields at the boundaries of coronal holes and how they affect the steady emission of solar material known as the solar wind streaming from these holes.

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