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HORUS VOL II. Issue 3

The Strange Phenomenon of Solar Prominences
Alban Wall

[*!* Image]

We are all familiar with the fact that clouds often assume the shapes of recognizable objects such as ships, people or animals. Though some of them can appear very realistic indeed, most times these ephemeral phantasms depend upon the observer's imagination as to what the cloud resembles; one viewer may see as a ship what another regards as a castle or some other figure.

A similar phenomenon occurs when huge clouds of superhot gases, a deep scarlet in color, are ejected high into the sun's atmosphere. Called solar prominences, these gaseous ejecta are divided into two general types, quiescent and eruptive. The former most often appear as immense clouds that may spread out for many thousands of miles over the surface of the sun and rise to considerable heights, changing shape slowly and lasting for as long as 3 or 4 weeks [see cover photo, KRONOS IV:4]. Eruptive prominences, on the other hand, shot violently from the chromosphere with velocities as high as 250 m.p.s., are relatively narrow fountains of jagged flame which, though reaching tremendous heights, are subject to rapid transformation and can vanish as rapidly as they appear. Quiescent type prominences often evolve into fantastic shapes which the imagination readily resolves into incredibly realistic looking familiar objects. [See title figure, above, and article figures 1-9 for reproductions of unretouched photographs of actual solar prominences: The reader is invited to exercise his own imagination for visual interpretation of these apparitions.

Solar prominences can be observed with a simple telescope only at times of total eclipse and, until relatively recent developments in spectroscopic and advanced photographic techniques, the very ram times of total solar eclipse provided the only few moments when the phenomenon could be brought under study. Now, however, through the use of the spectrohelioscope, prominences can be viewed directly at any time.

Though prominences can be "seen" by the naked eye during eclipses, they only appear as ill-defined, amorphous extrusions, similar in effect to viewing 1/4 inch-long protrusions on a golf ball sized object at a distance of 16 feet; it requires the use of at least a 10 or 12 power scope to resolve any degree of form and detail. When magnified many hundreds of times, fantastic shapes, like those in the illustration, come into the astonished observer's vision.

In view of the preceding, it is rather startling to read the following vivid description in a book written so long ago as 150 B.C.:

And I looked and saw other flying elements of the sun, whose names are "Phoenixes" and "Chalkydri," marvelous and wonderful, with feet and tails in the form of a lion, and a crocodile's head, their appearance is empurpled like the rainbow, their size is nine hundred measures, their wings are like those of angels .... : [2]

When modem technical terms are substituted for some of the fanciful phrases used in the description, the commentary becomes all the more impressive and mystifying:

"flying elements of the sun" - solar prominence.
"Phoenixes and Chalkydri" - quiescent and eruptive [two types of prominence were distinguished].

Also, if due allowance be made for not quite precise translation of the original language of the text and for possible differences in viewing conditions, "empurpled like the rainbow" is an apt description of the actual deep scarlet coloration of the solar prominence figures.

In addition, though the distance encompassed by a "measure" is not known to us, it seems clear that the author intended to convey the impression of great size.

That the phenomena referred to by the writer of the ancient document are indeed solar prominences is beyond question, so exact is the description. Yet it is hard to credit because:

  1. Prominences can only be seen at all by the naked eye at times of total solar eclipse, which is an extremely rare occurrence. The last total eclipse visible from London, for example, was in 1714 and the next will not be visible till the year 2151. Also, totality seldom lasts for more than a few minutes, seven at maximum.
  2. Even at times of eclipse, it is quite impossible to resolve prominences, especially the quiescent type, into definition of form without some degree of magnification. The photographs in the figures were taken with the aid of a high-power telescope. The image of the "beast" in Figure 3, for example, is only about 1/30th of the sun's diameter and would appear to the naked eye as but a small, indefinable lump on the limb of the sun.

How, then, are we to account for the fact that the ancient observers clearly were not only aware of the phenomena of solar prominences, but evidently had studied them in detail? there is one possible answer that comes immediately to mind: solar eruptions were at one time much more violent than they are presently and that the ejected cloud masses were many times more vast. I do not pose this as a probable solution, but merely as a speculation for heuristic consideration.

There is another possibility that is even more intriguing; some method of magnification was available to ancient astronomers of which we are not aware. In view of what we are just now beginning to discover about the remarkable observational capabilities and achievements of those ingenious scientists, this would not surprise me in the least.

[*!* Images 1-9]

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