A Dark Region Is Growing Eerily On The Sun’s Surface

NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory has captured images of a growing dark region on the surface of the Sun. Called a coronal hole, it produces high-speed solar winds that can disrupt satellite communications. Image: Solar Dynamics Observatory / NASA

NASA has spotted an enormous black blotch growing on the surface of the Sun. It looks eerie, but this dark region is nothing to fear, though it does signal potential disruption to satellite communications.

The dark region is called a coronal hole, an area on the surface of the Sun that is cooler and less dense than the surrounding areas. The magnetic fields in these holes are open to space, which allows high density plasma to flow out into space. The lack of plasma in these holes is what makes them appear dark. Coronal holes are the origin of high-speed solar winds, which can cause problems for satellite communications.

The images were captured by the Solar Dynamics Observatory (SDO) on July 11th. Tom Yulsman at Discover’s ImaGeo blog created a gif from several of NASA’s images.

[embed]https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hMVAIy17XFs[/embed]

High-speed solar winds are made up of solar particles which are travelling up to three times faster than the solar wind normally does. Though satellites are protected from the solar wind, extremes like this can still cause problems.

Coronal holes may look like a doomsday warning; an enormous black hole on the surface of our otherwise placid looking Sun is strange looking. But these holes are a part of the natural life of the Sun. And anyway, they only appear in extreme ultraviolet and x-ray wavelengths.

The holes tend to appear at the poles, due to the structure of the Sun’s magnetosphere. But when they appear in more equatorial regions of the Sun, they can cause intermittent problems, as the high-speed solar wind they generate is pointed at the Earth as the Sun rotates.

In June 2012, a coronal hole appeared that looked Big Bird from Sesame Street.

The Big Bird hole was the precursor to an extremely powerful solar storm, the most powerful one in 150 years. Daniel Baker, of the University of Colorado’s Laboratory of Atmospheric and Space Physics, said of that storm, “If it had hit, we would still be picking up the pieces.” We were fortunate that it missed us, as these enormous storms have the potential to damage power grids on the surface of the Earth.

It seems unlikely that any solar wind that reaches Earth as a result of this current coronal hole will cause any disruption to us here on Earth. But it’s not out of the question. In 1989 a solar storm struck Earth and knocked out power in the province of Quebec in Canada.

It may be that the only result of this coronal hole, and any geomagnetic storms it creates, are more vivid auroras.

Those are something everyone can appreciate and marvel at. And you don’t need an x-ray satellite to see them.

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ESA Discovers Where All The Missing Socks Have Been Going

Earth’s Atmosphere seen from space. Credit: NASA

We here at Earth are fortunate that we have a viable atmosphere, one that is protected by Earth’s magnetosphere. Without this protective envelope, life on the surface would be bombarded by harmful radiation emanating from the Sun. However, Earth’s upper atmosphere is still slowly leaking, with about 90 tonnes of material a day escaping from the upper atmosphere and streaming into space.

And although astronomers have been investigating this leakage for some time, there are still many unanswered questions. For example, how much material is being lost to space, what kinds, and how does this interact with solar wind to influence our magnetic environment? Such has been the purpose of the European Space Agency’s Cluster project, a series of four identical spacecraft that have been measuring Earth’s magnetic environment for the past 15 years.

Understanding our atmosphere’s interaction with solar wind first requires that we understand how Earth’s magnetic field works. For starters, it extends from the interior of our planet (and is believed to be the result of a dynamo effect in the core), and reaches all the way out into space. This region of space, which our magnetic field exerts influence over, is known as the magnetosphere.

The inner portion of this magnetosphere is called the plasmasphere, a donut-shaped region which extends to a distance of about 20,000 km from the Earth and co-rotates with it. The magnetosphere is also flooded with charged particles and ions that get trapped inside, and then are sent bouncing back and forth along the region’s field lines.

At its forward, Sun-facing edge, the magnetosphere meets the solar wind – a stream of charged particles flowing from the Sun into space. The spot where they make contact is known as the “Bow Shock”, which is so-named because its magnetic field lines force solar wind to take on the shape of a bow as they pass over and around us.

As the solar wind passes over Earth’s magnetosphere, it comes together again behind our planet to form a magnetotail – an elongated tube which contains trapped sheets of plasma and interacting field lines. Without this protective envelope, Earth’s atmosphere would have been slowly stripped away billions of years ago, a fate that is now believed to have befallen Mars.

That being said, Earth’s magnetic field is not exactly hermetically sealed. For example, at our planet’s poles, the field lines are open, which allows solar particles to enter and fill our magnetosphere with energetic particles. This process is what is responsible for Aurora Borealis and Aurora Australis (aka. the Northern and Southern Lights).

At the same time, particles from Earth’s upper atmosphere (the ionosphere) can escape the same way, traveling up through the poles and being lost to space. Despite learning much about Earth’s magnetic fields and how plasma is formed through its interaction with various particles, much about the whole process has been unclear until quite recently.

As Arnaud Masson, ESA’s Deputy Project Scientist for the Cluster mission stated in an ESA press release:

The question of plasma transport and atmospheric loss is relevant for both planets and stars, and is an incredibly fascinating and important topic. Understanding how atmospheric matter escapes is crucial to understanding how life can develop on a planet. The interaction between incoming and outgoing material in Earth’s magnetosphere is a hot topic at the moment; where exactly is this stuff coming from? How did it enter our patch of space?

Given that our atmosphere contains 5 quadrillion tons of matter (that’s 5 x 1015, or 5,000,000 billion tons), a loss of 90 tons a day doesn’t amount to much. However, this number does not include the mass of “cold ions” that are regularly being added. This term is typically used to described the hydrogen ions that we now know are being lost to the magnetosphere on a regular basis (along with oxygen and helium ions).

Since hydrogen requires less energy to escape our atmosphere, the ions that are created once this hydrogen becomes part of the plasmasphere also have low energy. As a result, they have been very difficult to detect in the past. What’s more, scientists have only known about this flow of oxygen, hydrogen and helium ions – which come from the Earth’s polar regions and replenish plasma in the magnetosphere – for a few decades.

Prior to this, scientists believed that solar particles alone were responsible for plasma in Earth’s magnetosphere. But in more recent years, they have come to understand that two other sources contribute to the plasmasphere. The first are sporadic “plumes” of plasma that grow within the plasmasphere and travel outwards towards the edge of the magnetosphere, where they interact with solar wind plasma coming the other way.

The other source? The aforementioned atmospheric leakage. Whereas this consists of abundant oxygen, helium and hydrogen ions, the cold hydrogen ions appear to play the most important role. Not only do they constitute a significant amount of matter lost to space, and may play a key role in shaping our magnetic environment. What’s more, most of the satellites currently orbiting Earth are unable to detect the cold ions being added to the mix, something which Cluster is able to do.

In 2009 and in 2013, the Cluster probes were able to characterize their strength, as well as that of other sources of plasma being added to the Earth’s magnetosphere. When only the cold ions are considered, the amount of atmosphere being lost o space amounts to several thousand tons per year. In short, its like losing socks. Not a big deal, but you’d like to know where they are going, right?

This has been another area of focus for the Cluster mission, which for the last decade and a half has been attempting to explore how these ions are lost, where they come from, and the like. As Philippe Escoubet, ESA’s Project Scientist for the Cluster mission, put it:

In essence, we need to figure out how cold plasma ends up at the magnetopause. There are a few different aspects to this; we need to know the processes involved in transporting it there, how these processes depend on the dynamic solar wind and the conditions of the magnetosphere, and where plasma is coming from in the first place – does it originate in the ionosphere, the plasmasphere, or somewhere else?

The reasons for understanding this are clear. High energy particles, usually in the form of solar flares, can pose a threat to space-based technology. In addition, understanding how our atmosphere interacts with solar wind is also useful when it comes to space exploration in general. Consider our current efforts to locate life beyond our own planet in the Solar System. If there is one thing that decades of missions to nearby planets has taught us, it is that a planet’s atmosphere and magnetic environment are crucial in determining habitability.

Within close proximity to Earth, there are two examples of this: Mars, which has a thin atmosphere and is too cold; and Venus, who’s atmosphere is too dense and far too hot. In the outer Solar System, Saturn’s moon Titan continues to intrigue us, mainly because of the unusual atmosphere. As the only body with a nitrogen-rich atmosphere besides Earth, it is also the only known planet where liquid transfer takes place between the surface and the atmosphere – albeit with petrochemicals instead of water.

Moreover, NASA’s Juno mission will spend the next two years exploring Jupiter’s own magnetic field and atmosphere. This information will tell us much about the Solar System’s largest planet, but it is also hoped to shed some light on the history planetary formation in the Solar System.

In the past fifteen years, Cluster has been able to tell astronomers a great deal about how Earth’s atmosphere interacts with solar wind, and has helped to explore magnetic field phenomena that we have only begun to understand. And while there is much more to be learned, scientists agree that what has been uncovered so far would have been impossible without a mission like Cluster.

Further Reading: ESA

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Thanks, Comet Pluto. Solar System Nomenclature Needs A Major Rethink

Four images from New Horizons’ Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) were combined with color data from the Ralph instrument to create this global view of Pluto. Credits: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI

Pluto can’t seem to catch a break lately. After being reclassified in 2006 by the International Astronomical Union, it seemed that what had been the 9th planet of the Solar System was now relegated to the status of “dwarf planet” with the likes of Ceres, Eris, Haumea, and Makemake. Then came the recent announcements that the title of “Planet 9” may belong to an object ten times the mass of Earth located 700 AU from our Sun.

And now, new research has been produced that indicates that Pluto may need to be reclassified again. Using data provided by the New Horizons mission, researchers have shown that Pluto’s interaction with the Sun’s solar wind is unlike anything observed in the Solar System thus far. As a result, it would seem that the debate over how to classify Pluto, and indeed all astronomical bodies, is not yet over.

In a study that appeared in the Journal of Geophysical Research, a team of researchers from the Southwest Research Institute – with support from the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory, the Laboratory of Atmospheric and Space Physics at University of Colorado and other institutions – examined data obtained by the New Horizon mission’s Solar Wind Around Pluto (SWAP) instrument.

Basically, solar wind effects every body in the Solar System. Consisting of electrons, hydrogen ions and alpha particles, this stream of plasma flows from our Sun to the edge of the Solar System at speeds of up to 160 million kilometers per hour. When it comes into contact with a comet, there is a discernible region behind the comet where the wind speed slows discernibly.

Meanwhile, where solar wind encounters a planet, the result is an abrupt diversion in its path. The region where this occurs around a planet is known as a “bow shock”, owing to the distinctive shape it forms. The very reason the New Horizons mission was equipped with the SWAP instrument was so that it could gather solar wind data from the edge of the Solar System and allow astronomers to create more accurate models of the environment.

But when the Southwestern Research Institute team examined the SWAP data, which was obtained during the New Horizons’ July 2015 flyby of Pluto, what they found was surprising. Previously, most researchers thought that Pluto was characterized more like a comet, which has a large region of gentle slowing of the solar wind, as opposed to the abrupt diversion solar wind encounters at a planet like Mars or Venus.

What they found instead was that the dwarf planet’s interaction with solar wind was something the fell between that of a comet and a planet. As Dr. David J. McComas – the Assistant Vice President of the Space Science and Engineering Division at the Southwest Research Institute – said during a NASA news release about the study: “This is a type of interaction we’ve never seen before anywhere in our solar system. The results are astonishing.”

Examining both the lighter hydrogen ions that are thrown off by the Sun, and the heavier methane ions that are produced by Pluto, they found that the former showed a 20% rate of deceleration behind Pluto. This, and the bow shock Pluto produces, were both consistent with that of a comet. At the same time, they found that Pluto’s gravity was strong enough that it is able to retain the heavier methane ions, which is consistent with a planet.

Between these two readings, it seems that Pluto is something of an anomaly, behaving as something of a hybrid. Yet another surprise from a celestial body that has been full of them lately. And under the circumstances, it may lead to another round of “classification debates”, as astronomers attempt to find a new class for bodies that behave like both comets and planets.

As Alan Stern of the Southwestern Research Institute, and the principal investigator of the New Horizon’s mission, explained, “These results speak to the power of exploration. Once again we’ve gone to a new kind of place and found ourselves discovering entirely new kinds of expressions in nature.”

Further Reading: Journal of Geophysical Research

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New Horizons Did Amazing Work Before Even Arriving At Pluto

The solar wind data collected by New Horizons will help create more accurate models of the space environment in our Solar System. Image: NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center Scientific Visualization Studio, the Space Weather Research Center (SWRC) and the Community-Coordinated Modeling Center (CCMC), Enlil and Dusan Odstrcil (GMU)

Anybody with an ounce of intellectual curiosity (and an internet connection) has seen the images of Pluto and its system taken by the New Horizons probe. The images and data from New Horizons have opened the door to Pluto’s atmosphere, geology, and composition. But New Horizons wasn’t entirely dormant during its 9 year, billion-plus mile journey to Pluto.

New Horizons returned 3 years worth of data on the solar wind that sweeps through the near-emptiness of space. The solar wind is the stream of particles that is released from the upper atmosphere of the Sun, called the corona. The Sun’s solar wind is what creates space weather in our solar system, and the wind itself varies in temperature, speed, and density.

The solar wind data from New Horizons, which NASA calls an “unprecedented set of observations,” is filling in a gap in our knowledge. Observatories like the Solar Dynamics Observatory (SDO) and the Solar and Heliospheric Observatory (SOHO) are studying the Sun up close, and the Voyager probes have sampled the solar wind near the edge of the heliosphere, where the solar wind meets interstellar space, but New Horizons is giving us our first look at the solar wind in Pluto’s region of space.

pluto-space-wx-sim

This solar wind data should shed some light on a number of things, including the dangerous radiation astronauts face when in space. There is a type of particle with extreme energy levels called anomalous cosmic rays. When travelling close to Earth, these high-velocity rays can be a serious radiation hazard to astronauts.

The data from New Horizons reveals particles that pick up an acceleration boost, which makes them exceed their initial speed. It’s thought that these particles could be the precursors to anomalous cosmic rays. A better understanding of this might lead to a better way to protect astronauts.

These same rays have other effects further out in space. It looks like they are partly responsible for shaping the edge of the heliosphere; the region in space where the solar wind meets the interstellar medium.

New Horizons has also told us something about the structure of the solar wind the further it travels from the Sun. Close to the Sun, phenomena like coronal mass ejections (CMEs) have a clearly discernible structure. And the differences in the solar wind, in terms of velocity, density, and temperature, are also discernible. They’re determined by the region of the Sun they came from. New Horizons found that far out in the solar system, these structures have changed.

“At this distance, the scale size of discernible structures increases, since smaller structures are worn down or merge together,” said Heather Elliott, a space scientist at the Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio, Texas, and the lead author of a paper to be published in the Astrophysical Journal. “It’s hard to predict if the interaction between smaller structures will create a bigger structure, or if they will flatten out completely.”

The Voyager probes measured the solar wind as they travelled through our Solar System into the interstellar medium. They’ve told us a lot about the solar wind in the more distant parts of our system, but their instruments aren’t as sensitive and advanced as New Horizons’. This second data set from New Horizons is helping to fill in the blanks in our knowledge.

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