NCAR study finds coronal loops could be an optical illusion

Coronal loops have become iconic images used to symbolize the structure of the sun’s outer layer.

BOULDER, Colo. — Massive arcs of plasma in the solar atmosphere, called coronal loops, have long been used by scientists to measure our star’s temperature and density.

These features have become iconic images used to symbolize the structure of the sun’s outer layer. But new research from the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) in Boulder shows that these loops may just be optical illusions.

“That’s the most impactful finding of this paper, that we don’t know what we’re looking at,” said solar physicist Anna Malanushenko.

She and her team of scientists used a high-resolution radiative magnetohydrodynamic model to take a closer look at the solar corona slice by slice.

The simulation, which was created a few years ago by NCAR scientists in conjunction with Lockheed Martin, provided Malanushenko with the most detail of the sun ever seen.

“My mind exploded. My mind completely exploded,” she said. “What I saw inside the simulation was nothing like what I expected to see.”

> Watch: Computer model showing folds in the coronal veil

What she saw, instead of individual loops, was instead a mixture of plasma with different layers and densities, which shows up as different shades of light in ultraviolet imagery.

She calls this the coronal veil. And the folds of this veil could be mistaken for individual loops.

She used her kitchen curtain as an example. The darker pleats in the curtain are more visible than the sheer part of the curtain, but the pleats are still part of the curtain.

The study shows that some coronal loops could simply be folds in the coronal veil.

Malanushenko said the discovery could change the way we measure our sun, which is important to all of us because all life on Earth depends on how it behaves.

“Every time something like this happens, when new methods emerge, we learn something new,” she said. “And it looks like we still have a lot to learn about our star.”

The study does not say that coronal loops do not exist. It just goes to show that if they are there, they cannot be distinguished from coronal veil folds – at least not with current scientific methods.

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