A probe passes through and films a solar flare

2023-09-22 05:08:30

Published22. September 2023, 07:08

Space: A probe crosses and films a solar flare

The Parker ship flew past a gigantic ejection of plasma and energy and found that it was carrying interstellar dust with it.



The Parker Probe on the Sun’s porch (artist’s impression).


On September 5, 2022, NASA’s Parker Solar Probe flew past one of the most powerful coronal mass ejections (CMEs) on record. This was not only an impressive feat of engineering, but above all a huge boon for the scientific community. This CME crossing helps prove a 20-year-old theory about the interaction of ejections with interplanetary dust, with implications for space weather prediction.

In 2003, in fact, it was hypothesized that CMEs could interact with interplanetary dust orbiting our star and even transport it outwards. CMEs are huge flares from the Sun’s outer atmosphere, or corona, that contribute to space weather, which can endanger satellites, disrupt communications and navigation technologies, and even disrupt power grids on Earth. Knowing more about how these events interact with interplanetary dust could help scientists better predict how quickly CMEs might travel from the Sun to Earth, predicting when the planet might see their impact, reports the NASA.

The ejection sucks up everything in its path

“These interactions between CMEs and dust were theorized twenty years ago, but had not been observed until Parker Solar Probe discovered that an ejection acts like a vacuum cleaner, clearing dust as it passes.” , said Guillermo Stenborg, an astrophysicist at Johns Hopkins University and lead author of the paper published in “The Astrophysical Journal».

The Parker Probe’s WISPR camera watches the spacecraft pass through a large coronal mass ejection on September 5, 2022. These ejections are immense eruptions of plasma and energy from the solar corona that determine space weather.

NASA/Johns Hopkins APL/Naval Research Lab

This dust is made up of tiny particles from asteroids, comets and even planets and is present throughout the solar system. A type of faint glow called zodiacal light, sometimes visible before sunrise or after sunset, is a manifestation of the interplanetary dust cloud.

Dust carried 6 million kilometers

The CME moved the dust up to about 6 million kilometers from the Sun (about one-sixth the distance between the Sun and Mercury) but it was replenished almost immediately by interplanetary dust floating through the solar system. Parker’s in situ observations were key to this discovery, because characterizing dust dynamics in the wake of CMEs is challenging at such a distance. According to the researchers, Parker’s observations could also provide insight into related phenomena lower in the corona, such as coronal darkening caused by low-density areas in the corona that often appear after CMEs erupt.

Scientists observed the interaction between the CME and the dust in the form of a decrease in brightness in images from Parker’s Wide-field Imager for Solar Probe (WISPR) camera. Indeed, interplanetary dust reflects light, amplifying brightness where dust is present.

Scientists are just beginning to understand that interplanetary dust affects the shape and speed of a CME. But further studies are needed to better understand these interactions. Parker made his sixth flyby of Venus, using the planet’s gravity to get even closer to the Sun on his next five approaches. This occurs as the Sun itself approaches solar maximum, the period of the Sun’s 11-year cycle when sunspots and solar activity are most abundant. As the Sun’s activity increases, scientists hope to have the opportunity to observe more of these rare phenomena and explore how they might affect our terrestrial and interplanetary environments.

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