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Tuesday, October 3, 2023

Parker Solar Probe Unlocks Solar Wind Secrets for Better Space Weather Forecasts

These observations hold the ability to predict and mitigate the impact of solar flares on electronic equipment and vital systems

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Russell Chattaraj
Russell Chattaraj
Mechanical engineering graduate, writes about science, technology and sports, teaching physics and mathematics, also played cricket professionally and passionate about bodybuilding.

UNITED STATES: In a remarkable scientific achievement, the Parker Solar Probe (PSP), a NASA spacecraft launched in 2018, has successfully examined the outer corona of the Sun, providing crucial insights into the fine structure of solar winds.

These groundbreaking observations hold the ability to revolutionise our ability to predict and mitigate the impact of solar flares on electronic equipment and vital systems.

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Designed to venture closer to the Sun than any previous man-made object, the Parker Solar Probe has already broken records by approaching within a mere four million miles (6.5 million kilometres) of the solar center.

By venturing into the heart of our closest star, the probe has captured data that sheds light on the nature and behaviour of solar winds, which are streams of charged particles emanating from the Sun’s upper atmosphere.

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Recent findings from the University of California Berkeley, based on the Parker Solar Probe’s observations reveal the presence of high-energy particle streams that align with the “supergranulation flows within coronal holes.” This discovery strongly suggests that these regions serve as the primary source of the so-called “fast” solar winds.

These winds, known for their ability to disrupt vital communication systems, navigation equipment, satellites, and even power grids, have long posed a significant challenge for space weather forecasting.

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Normally, fast solar winds originate from coronal holes that typically appear at the Sun’s poles during periods of solar quiescence. These winds usually do not directly impact the Earth. 

However, during the Sun’s active phase, which occurs every 11 years during a magnetic field reversal, these holes can emerge throughout its surface, generating solar wind bursts directed straight towards our planet.

Understanding the precise origins and behaviour of solar winds is of paramount importance in predicting solar storms and mitigating their potential consequences.

Professor James Drake, the lead researcher of the study, emphasised the significance of comprehending the mechanisms behind the Sun’s wind, as it holds critical practical implications for Earth.

By unravelling the Sun’s energy release processes and the driving forces behind geomagnetic storms, which pose a threat to our communication networks, scientists can better prepare for future disruptions.

The research team’s analysis indicates that coronal holes resemble showerheads, with jets emerging from bright spots where magnetic field lines penetrate and emerge from the Sun’s surface.

These regions often witness the collision and reconnection of oppositely directed magnetic fields, resulting in the expulsion of charged particles into space.

To better illustrate this phenomenon, the scientists draw a comparison to convection cells on the Sun’s photosphere, akin to the boiling of water in a pot. When larger-scale convection flows, known as supergranulation, converge and move downward, they drag the magnetic field into funnel-like structures.

This intensifies the magnetic field, creating a magnetic “scoop” that transports charged particles away from the Sun. The team was able to observe the spatial separation of these funnels, or drains, using the data gathered by the Parker Solar Probe.

When the solar wind finally reaches Earth after its approximately 93 million-mile journey, it transforms into a turbulent flow of magnetic fields and charged particles.

These intertwine with Earth’s own magnetic field, releasing electrical energy into the upper atmosphere. This process leads to awe-inspiring auroras at the poles but also has implications for Earth’s atmosphere and technological systems.

Predicting the occurrence and intensity of solar storms, the most powerful form of solar wind, is a primary objective of NASA’s “Living With a Star” programme, which provided funding for the Parker Solar Probe mission.

While the Parker Solar Probe cannot venture any closer to the Sun than four million miles without risking damage to its instruments, the team expects to solidify their conclusions using data collected at that altitude.

However, they acknowledge that the Sun’s current phase, known as the solar maximum, is characterised by heightened activity, which may complicate their observations.

Despite initial concerns that the Parker Solar Probe was launched during the quietest phase of the solar cycle, scientists now recognise the fortuitous timing of the mission.

Launching during the solar minimum has allowed researchers to gain valuable insights into the complex nature of solar winds without excessive interference.

The knowledge garnered from the Parker Solar Probe’s mission is set to inform the development of more accurate space weather forecasting models, ensuring the safety and resilience of our technology-dependent society in the face of solar disturbances.

As the Parker Solar Probe continues to unveil the secrets of our nearest star, scientists and engineers are optimistic that this wealth of information will ultimately enable us to navigate the challenges posed by solar storms and fortify our infrastructure against the disruptive effects of these celestial phenomena.

Also Read: Jupiter’s Great Red Spot: Unravelling the Enigma of the Solar System’s Largest Storm


  • Russell Chattaraj

    Mechanical engineering graduate, writes about science, technology and sports, teaching physics and mathematics, also played cricket professionally and passionate about bodybuilding.

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