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NASA Probe Flew Straight Through Sun Explosion, Found Clue to Solar Storms

A NASA solar probe flew past a powerful solar flare and found a key clue to the formation of solar storms.

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

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

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

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

In these images, scientists spotted characteristic structures called Kelvin-Helmholtz instabilities (KHI) inside the CME.

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

On Earth, they can sometimes be seen in rare fluctuating clouds in the sky.

Inside CMEs, they are slightly harder to notice. This is partly why scientists have long hypothesized that they exist inside solar explosions, but have never been able to see them.

Although KHIs don’t appear to many of us, scientists see them clearly in 2021 images from the Parker Solar Probe.

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

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

CMEs do not remain confined to the sun. When they explode, they release a blast of charged particles that can travel through space and strike Earth.


coronal mass ejection sun soho nasa

A coronal mass ejection in 2002.

NASA



The problem is that these charged particles can disrupt satellites and disrupt radio communications.

In combination with other solar events, CMEs could also contribute to the creation of a very powerful, but also very rare, solar storm, the likes of which we haven’t seen in decades. While the world today depends on electronics, it is still unclear how this type of solar storm could affect our infrastructure.

The problem is that CMEs are very unpredictable and can take only a few hours to reach Earth. It is therefore crucial to know how to better predict and anticipate this type of event.


solar probe parker sun wind particles heat crown space mission illustration nasa goddard space flight center

An illustration of the Parker Solar Probe flying through the sun’s scorching corona and resisting solar wind particle blasts.

NASA Goddard Space Flight Center



Scientists hope to learn more about the sun as the Parker Solar Probe continues its investigations. The spacecraft became the first man-made object to fly past the solar corona in 2021 and orbits the sun closer with each orbit.

It uses a 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 come closest to the sun, traveling approximately 3.8 million kilometers from its surface.

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

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