A NASA probe flew straight through an explosion from the sun, and found a key clue to how solar storms form

A NASA probe flew straight through an explosion from the sun, and found a key clue to how solar storms form
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coronal mass ejection sun
The sun blows out a coronal mass ejection, February 24, 2015.

  • The Parker Solar Probe picked up crucial clues about our star as it flew through a coronal mass ejection.
  • NASA’s probe is circling the sun, getting ever closer as it dives into its atmosphere. 
  • The information could help us better predict solar weather, which can wreak havoc on Earth. 

A NASA solar probe flew straight through a powerful eruption from the sun, and in doing so, found a key clue to how solar storms form.

During the event, the Parker Solar Probe managed to capture footage from “one of the most powerful coronal mass ejections (CMEs) ever recorded,” NASA said.

The findings could help us better understand these huge solar explosions, which can bring beautiful auroras to our planet, but also wreak havoc on Earth’s satellites and communications.

“Understanding turbulence is key in achieving a deeper understanding of CME evolution and kinematics,” said Evangelos Paouris a solar physicist at George Mason University and an author of a study analyzing the footage.

The analysis looked at footage captured by NASA’s Parker Solar probe when it flew inside a coronal mass ejection in 2021.

Within this footage, scientists spotted characteristic structures called Kelvin-Helmholtz instabilities (KHIs) inside the CME.

KHIs are structures that appear when two rapidly moving fluids interact with each other. This creates a repeated pattern of swirls, appearing almost like a hand drawing of waves on the ocean.

On Earth, they can be occasionally spotted in rare fluctus clouds in the sky.

Inside CMEs, they are slightly more difficult to notice. That’s partly why scientists have long hypothesized they existed inside the solar explosions but had never been able to see them.

While the KHIs may not appear to many of us, scientists see them clearly in the 2021 footage from the Parker Solar Probe.

“We never anticipated that KHI structures could develop to large enough scales to be imaged in visible light,” said Angelos Vourlidas, an astrophysicist at Johns Hopkins University who worked on the probe.

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This information can help scientists better understand how the CMEs propagate and interact with solar winds, said Paouris. And that’s important.

CMEs don’t stay confined to the sun. When they explode, they release a burst of charged particles that can come barreling through space to hit the Earth.

coronal mass ejection sun soho nasa
A 2002 coronal mass ejection.

The issue is that these charged particles can mess with satellites and disrupt radio communication.

In combination with other solar events, CMEs could also contribute to creating a very powerful, but also very rare, solar storm, the likes of which we haven’t seen for decades. With the world’s reliance on electronics today, it’s still not clear how that kind of solar storm could affect our infrastructure.

The problem is that CMEs are highly unpredictable, and they can take as little as a few hours to reach the Earth. So knowing how better to predict them and anticipate these types of events is crucial.

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parker solar probe sun wind particles heat corona space mission illustration nasa goddard space flight center
An illustration of the Parker Solar Probe flying through the sun’s searing-hot corona and withstanding blasts of solar wind particles.

Scientists expect to learn more about the sun as the Parker Solar Probe continues its investigations. The spacecraft became the first human-made object to fly through the solar corona in 2021 and is circling the sun closer in each orbit.

It uses 4.5-inch-thick carbon composite heat shield to protect it from the intense heat of the sun, withstanding temperatures up to nearly 2,500 degrees Fahrenheit.

By the end of 2024, it is expected to make its closest approach to the sun, zooming about 3.8 million miles from its surface.

The study was published in the peer-reviewed Astrophysical Journal on March 27.

Read the original article on Business Insider


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