Helioseismology

Helioseismology, a term coined by Douglas Gough, is the study of the structure and dynamics of the Sun through its oscillations. These are principally caused by sound waves that are continuously driven and damped by convection near the Sun's surface. It is similar to geoseismology, or asteroseismology (also coined by Gough), which are respectively the studies of the Earth or stars through their oscillations. While the Sun's oscillations were first detected in the early 1960s, it was only in the mid-1970s that it was realized that the oscillations propagated throughout the Sun and could allow scientists to study the Sun's deep interior. The modern field is separated into global helioseismology, which studies the Sun's resonant modes directly,[1] and local helioseismology, which studies the propagation of the component waves near the Sun's surface.[2]

Helioseismology has contributed to a number of scientific breakthroughs. The most notable was to show the predicted neutrino flux from the Sun could not be caused by flaws in stellar models and must instead be a problem of particle physics. The so-called solar neutrino problem was ultimately resolved by neutrino oscillations.[3][4][5] The experimental discovery of neutrino oscillations was recognized by the 2015 Nobel Prize for Physics.[6] Helioseismology also allowed accurate measurements of the quadrupole (and higher-order) moments of the Sun's gravitational potential,[7][8] which are consistent with General Relativity. The first helioseismic calculations of the Sun's internal rotation profile showed a rough separation into a rigidly-rotating core and differentially-rotating envelope. The boundary layer is now known as the tachocline[9] and is thought to be a key component for the solar dynamo.[10] Although it roughly coincides with the base of the solar convection zone — also inferred through helioseismology — it is conceptually distinct, being a boundary layer in which there is a meridional flow connected with the convection zone and driven by the interplay between baroclinicity and Maxwell stresses.[11]

Helioseismology benefits most from continuous monitoring of the Sun, which began first with uninterrupted observations from near the South Pole over the austral summer.[12][13] In addition, observations over multiple solar cycles have allowed helioseismologists to study changes in the Sun's structure over decades. These studies are made possible by global telescope networks like the Global Oscillations Network Group (GONG) and the Birmingham Solar Oscillations Network (BiSON), which have been operating for over several decades.


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