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Sun Whips Solar System Into Shape With 500,000-Mile Plasma Filament

The sun let loose a 500,000-mile-long filament that whipped outward in August, as scientists discovered the star has an unexpected shape
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The sun is full of surprises: In what is perhaps a display of the feistiness that is destined to increase over the next couple of years until peaking in 2013–14, it recently launched a ribbon of plasma in a whipping motion worthy of any dominatrix.

The golden orb that enables Mother Earth to be a giver of life is, ironically, one of the most enigmatic bodies in the planetary system bearing its name. And of late another surprise has come to light, so to speak. Scientists studying the sun’s shape have found it to be wider at the middle than at the poles, while simultaneously being rounder than scientists anticipated.

The finding, announced on August 16, challenges existing notions of the internal workings of our star. Going wisdom held that the sun would change shape during different parts of its cycle, reflecting the shift of matter in the interior and the atmosphere as it’s propelled around by the solar cycle’s magnetic activity, said. This was thought to alter the sun’s shape.

However, that doesn’t seem to be the case. While all the sun’s other measurements seem to vary with the 11-year rhythm of the sunspot cycle, said Jeffrey Kuhn, a physicist and solar researcher at the University of Hawaii in Pukalani, to, this one does not. In fact the shape is constant, and rounder, in a way that throws into question long-held assumptions about the sun’s rotation, composition and internal dynamics.

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"The peculiar fact that the sun is slightly too round to agree with our understanding of its rotation is also an important clue in a longstanding mystery," said Kuhn, a lead author on the study, which was published in the journal Science. "The fact that it is too round means that there are other forces at work making this round shape. We've probably misunderstood how the gas turbulence in the sun works, or how the sun organizes the magnetism that we can only see at the surface. Finding problems in our theories is always more exciting than not, since this is the only way we learn more."

Meanwhile, about that plasma whip. Below is a video of how it looked lashing out into space.