In a first, spacecraft ‘touches’ the sun to discover source of solar wind

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A solar mission, which has been flying closer to the sun to uncover its secrets, went extremely near to the star’s surface to make an important discovery.

The data collected by Parker Solar Probe has discovered the source of the solar wind, which is a stream of particles carrying energy that emerges from the corona, or the hot outer atmosphere of the sun, towards the Earth.

“It’s like seeing jets of water emanating from a showerhead through the blast of water hitting you in the face,” said the researchers at the University of California-Berkley, in a release.

Solar wind originates from particular regions: study

In the latest study, which was published in the journal Nature, the team has explained the streams of high-energy particles in detail that appear similar to the supergranulation flows within coronal holes and hint at these being the specific regions where the “fast” solar wind originates.

Discovering the solar wind’s source can help scientists make more improved predictions about space weather and solar storms which can affect Earth.

“Winds carry lots of information from the sun to Earth, so understanding the mechanism behind the sun’s wind is important for practical reasons on Earth,” stated study co-author James Drake.

“That’s going to affect our ability to understand how the sun releases energy and drives geomagnetic storms, which are a threat to our communication networks,” he added.

Coronal holes work like showerheads, reveal data

The data collected by the spacecraft revealed that the coronal holes work like showerheads, where jets appear on the surface of the sun in the form of bright spots, marking the points where the magnetic field passes in and out of the photosphere.

“The photosphere is covered by convection cells, like in a boiling pot of water, and the larger scale convection flow is called supergranulation,” stated lead study author Stuart D Bale, in a statement.

“Where these supergranulation cells meet and go downward, they drag the magnetic field in their path into this downward kind of funnel. The magnetic field becomes very intensified there because it’s just jammed. It’s kind of a scoop of the magnetic field going down into a drain. And the spatial separation of those little drains, those funnels, is what we’re seeing now with solar probe data,” he added.

“The big conclusion is that it’s magnetic reconnection within these funnel structures that’s providing the energy source of the fast solar wind,” Bale said.

“It doesn’t just come from everywhere in a coronal hole, it’s substructured within coronal holes to these supergranulation cells. It comes from these little bundles of magnetic energy that are associated with convection flows. Our results, we think, are strong evidence that it’s reconnection that’s doing that,” the researcher further stated.


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