Scientists wonder whether a NASA spacecraft saw a solar tornado—or if it’s just an illusion.
NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory (SDO) stares at our sun in high-definition from space. Under the spacecraft's constant gaze the sun's invisible magnetic field betrays its presence by bending charged gas, or plasma, into entrancing patterns. In February 2012, SDO captured curious images in which plasma near the sun’s surface appears to swirl like debris in a tornado. But was the plasma really rotating? Some scientists believe the spinning is an illusion caused by a 2-D projection of 3-D motion, while others think it is truly twisting. Newer observations may show more clearly that some of the material is moving toward Earth while some is moving away, pointing to genuine rotation. If that’s the case, bunched magnetic fields at the sun’s surface could be causing the elaborate plasma dance by becoming tangled themselves. Watch the video to see solar magnetism in action.