The Michelson Dopler Imager (MDI): The devil in the details…

16 Years Staring at the Sun (without sunglasses)

An artists conception of the SOHO spacecraft observing the Sun.

The locations of each science instrument (including MDI) on the spacecraft.

The data we are using for this stage of Sunspotters comes from the Michelson Doppler Imager (MDI; Scherrer, 1995) instrument, which is on-board the Solar and Heliospheric Observatory (fact sheet; shown in images above).

File:Lagrange very massive.svg

Positions of the Lagrange points. SOHO is positioned at L1, near the Earth, around 1% of the way to the Sun.

SOHO orbits the Sun between the Sun and Earth at the first Lagrange point (L1). Enjoy a video of SOHO being launched into space on board an ATLAS rocket. An L1 orbit allows uninterrupted views of the Sun, without the Earth or Moon getting in the way. The MDI instrument was turned off in 2011, but successfully took data for about 16 years.

The SOHO spacecraft before being mounted on the rocket for launch into space.

The ATLAS rocket which took SOHO into space (the spacecraft is in the head of the rocket).

Around 60,000 magnetic images of the Sun’s surface were beamed back to Earth over this time interval, and have allowed the study of the magnetic properties of sunspots and the Sun as a whole over more than an entire 11-year solar cycle. In this project we take advantage of these features to study the magnetic complexity of sunspot groups over a long timescale and with regards to eruptive activity.

The current dataset used in Sunspotter includes cut-out images that are based on the locations of sunspot groups determined by hand (by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Agency and the US Air Force; Figure 14). The current dataset includes around 10,000 images, and will allow us to determine the relationship between sunspot group magnetic complexity and other magnetic properties, such as magnetic area, flux, polarity imbalance, and the length of the polarity separation line (separating positive and negative regions of a given sunspot group image).

Making Sense of the Data

We have processed the data in a specific way to aid volunteers in comparing the sunspot group images. The thick white line shows the limb of the Sun (beyond the limb lies outer space). MDI provides us with images of the whole disk of the Sun. We have cut out images of sunspot groups centered on a set of human detections, as explained above. The cut-outs end up being all different sizes, so we buffer out the smaller ones with generated noise to make them a uniform size.

Within the images you will see blobs of white and black. White areas represent magnetic fields oriented toward the observer, and black areas represent magnetic fields oriented away from the observer. If you could put a bar magnet on the Sun, the magnet would look white when facing one way, and black when facing the other way.

However, not everything you see in these images is a magnetic field (or necessarily even a physical feature, for that matter). The following images show some examples of odd looking stuff  you’ll find in the data. We have tried to explain the cause of each observed feature, below.


Rectangular boundary of sunspot group magnetic fields.

You will probably notice that the sunspot groups have a rectangular boundary. This is due to the detection algorithm we used to extract each sunspot group. We get rid of all the stuff that we do not consider to be a part of the sunspot group in question. It is an arbitrary choice of what to keep and what to get rid of, but one that has to be made- at least it is done in a uniform manner. You will be able to see a ‘context’ image of what exists outside of this rectangular area after making a classification and going to the ‘Profile’ tab. We buffer out the images to the same field of view so that one can compare the scale of the features in the images. We are discussing the possibility of removing the scale information in the next batch of data (to remove the potential bias that larger spot groups would always be judged to be more complex- which should not always be the case…).


Cosmic ray hits on instrument camera (CCD chip).

Very rarely, a scratchy speckled pattern will be seen, like that shown in the image above. This is due to a large eruption being launched from the Sun, that actually hit our spacecraft! The scratches and speckles are energetic particles (e.g., protons), travelling close to the speed of light that hit our camera and were recorded, while we were trying to take a picture of the Sun. Its kind of like trying to film a tornado in Kansas, and your film crew keeps getting hit by airborne cows. Movie of the ‘Halloween Storm’ in 2003; pay attention at ~8 seconds into the movie.

A missing line of data.

The black line seen at the bottom of the feature in this image is likely due to MDI’s camera not recording certain pixels. Once in a while a large block of data (not shown here) may go missing, and this tends to occur when the ground station on Earth was in the process of receiving data and an interruption occurred, resulting in the loss…like having dropped cell-phone call.


New/ongoing flux emergence.

These images show sunspot groups during their emergence phase. The first and last images show pairs of sunspots (one positive/white, and the other negative/black) bursting through the solar surface. They often show a characteristic double-C shape, like two lions roaring at each other, face-to-face. The middle image shows a sunspot pair emerging (in the top left corner of the image) into an already established sunspot group (the stuff in the center of the image). One explanation for the double-C is that it is the result of helical magnetic fields passing through the solar surface (all you can see is the cross-section). Here is the best example I have ever seen, as noted by Sunspotter volunteer, @artman40.


False polarity separation lines.

Often, you will notice that circular blobs of a given polarity will have an edge that appears to be of the opposite polarity. It will always be the edge facing the limb (edge) of the Sun. These circular blobs are sunspots, and because their magnetic fields fan out at their boundaries (penumbrae), this can cause a ‘false’ polarity to be observed when the sunspot is near the limb of the Sun, because of the way that we measure magnetic fields with this instrument. The ‘true’ polarity of a sunspot is the one that is on the edge facing away from the limb of the Sun. In the images above, the first sunspot is ‘truly’ positive/white, the middle one is ‘truly’ positive/white, and the last one is ‘truly’ negative/black.

Sunspot instrument saturation effect.

The ‘hollowed-out’ artifact seen in the leading sunspot is due to a saturation effect, as noted by Sunspotter volunteers @Quia and @Mjtbarrett. The problem is that for MDI, much of the data was processed on-board the spacecraft. Because of the way that the processing was designed from the beginning, the model used to calculate the magnetic fields broke down for very large fields (>2000 gauss), resulting in the saturation. Unfortunately, the effect isn’t even linear, so even at lower fields (1k-1.5k G) you start to see problems. Also, the non-linearity makes it hard to correct for.

A paper on the effect is available. In a future blog post, we will explain the making of a magnetograms, and also touch on the saturation problem.

Nothing is visible within the field-of-view.

Nothing is visible within the field-of-view.

Often, there will be nothing to see at all. This is usually because the sunspot group that was recorded by human observers at the beginning of the day has already progressed beyond the edge of the Sun by the time our spacecraft took the data. And since we are relying on human observers to pick out sunspot groups in the current data set, sometimes we end up with nothing…

A large region with a double polarity separation line.

Last but not least: this is an image of a particularly large sunspot group that released many significant eruptions (some of the largest that we know of!). Note the elongated strip of negative (black) magnetic flux, sandwiched between the two areas of positive (white flux). This sandwiching may have caused the shearing and stretching of the fields to the point of breakage. The double polarity separation line pattern seen here (tracing the dividing line between the white and black areas) is of particular interest to me, as I am convinced it that it is often a sign that a large eruption could occur.

If you come across any other interesting artifacts or patterns in the data, save them by going to the ‘Profile’ tab in the main sunspotter interface. There is plenty to discover about what makes sunspots go boom!


About Dr. Paul A. Higgins

I am a postdoctoral research fellow in the Astrophysics Research Group at Trinity College Dublin in Ireland. Currently I am a visiting researcher at LMSAL in Palo Alto, CA. I am investigating the causes of solar eruptions. To do this I use image processing and data mining techniques to study the evolution of sunspot groups as they are born, cross the solar disk, producing flares and coronal mass ejections, and then quietly decay and fade away.

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