This is the first accurate, computer-generated image of a sunspot. Not only is it awesome and terrifying to behold, but it means we're one step closer to understanding the solar weather that could one day destroy the earth.
Sun spots are a form of solar weather that goes through 11 year cycles. They are also associated with massive ejections of plasma and electromagnetic particles from the sun, which can interfere with earth weather and effect communications systems as well as the electrical grid. Understanding how sunspots work is a key to protecting earth from these plasma bursts.
According to the National Science Foundation:
Ever since outward flows from the center of sunspots were discovered 100 years ago, scientists have worked to explain the complex structure of sunspots, whose number peaks and wanes during the 11-year solar cycle. Sunspots accompany intense magnetic activity that is associated with solar flares and massive ejections of plasma that can buffet Earth's atmosphere. The resulting damage to power grids, satellites and other sensitive technological systems takes an economic toll on a rising number of industries.
Creating such detailed simulations would not have been possible even as recently as a few years ago, before the latest generation of supercomputers and a growing array of instruments to observe the sun. The new computer models capture pairs of sunspots with opposite polarity. In striking detail, they reveal the dark central region, or umbra, with brighter umbral dots, as well as webs of elongated narrow filaments with flows of mass streaming away from the spots in the outer penumbral regions. They also capture the convective flow and movement of energy that underlie the sunspots, and which are not directly detectable by instruments.
The models suggest that the magnetic fields within sunspots need to be inclined in certain directions in order to create such complex structures. The authors conclude that there is a unified physical explanation for the structure of sunspots in umbra and penumbra that's the consequence of convection in a magnetic field with varying properties.
Image by Matthias Rempel, NCAR