Orbit gambit

May 3, 1996

Ropelike plumes, and hairlike jets of gas that stream through the sun's atmosphere at 450 kilometres a second, have been pictured in unprecedented detail by a new observatory balanced in space between the sun's and the earth's gravitational fields.

The latest images from the European Space Agency's mission Soho, the Solar and Heliospheric Observatory, show that the sun, which is going through the quietest phase of its 11-year activity cycle and looks calm from earth, is actually full of violent activity. The Extreme Ultraviolet Imaging Telescope can be tuned to pick up the different gases in the sun's atmosphere which emit light in the ultraviolet part of the spectrum.

Along with several of the 12 instruments on board it aims eventually to build up a map of the sun's weather, says Richard Harrison of the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory, a principal investigator for Soho.

Scientists hope to be able to give three days' warning of electrical storms caused by the sun's ejection of clouds of radioactive particles, which can disrupt power lines and navigation systems.

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