A spacecraft has detected tiny jets that could be the elusive source of the sun’s solar wind.
The discovery was made by the European Space Agency’s (ESA) Solar Orbiter. According to ESA, the satellite is the most complex scientific lab ever sent to the sun.
Using the Extreme Ultraviolet Imager (EUI) —a suite of remote-sensing telescopes — the probe spotted jets of material emerging from the sun’s outer atmosphere.
Each jet lasts between 20 and 100 seconds. During these fleeting moments, they expel charged particles — known as plasma — at around 100km per second. Scientists suspect the jets are powering the solar wind.
In this mosaic of images of the jets, the sun’s south pole is to the left. Credit: Credit: ESA and NASA/Solar Orbiter/EUI Team
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The solar wind is created by the outward expansion of plasma from the Sun’s outermost atmosphere. That atmosphere is known as the corona.
As it sweeps through the solar system, the solar wind reaches speeds of over 1 million miles per hour. When it hits Earth’s magnetic field, it can create the northern lights and southern lights — as well as disruptions in GPS and communications systems. It also protects Earth from other harmful particles coming from space.
Despite its immense impact on the cosmos, the solar wind’s origins remain mysterious. But the Solar Orbiter has shone a new light on the secrets.
The research team gave much of the credit to the EUI instrument.
We could only detect these tiny jets because of the unprecedented high-resolution, high-cadence images produced by EUI,” said Lakshmi Pradeep Chitta, the principal author of a paper on the findings.
The spacecraft will now slowly incline its orbit towards the polar regions. When that happens, it will provide another view of the solar winds.
ESA’s project scientist for the Solar Orbiter, Daniel Müller, hopes the new observations produce further evidence.
“It’s harder to measure some of the properties of these tiny jets when seeing them edge-on, but in a few years, we will see them from a different perspective than any other telescopes or observatories so that together should help a lot,” he said.