An intense solar eruption was recorded by the European Space Agency's Solar Orbiter. Plasma moved at a speed of around 170 kilometers per second around the sun.
Studying distant stars in the galaxy is of great importance to us. This is because by learning more about them, we can learn more about the planets that orbit them and their composition. But the closest star to Earth also gives us valuable information. Our sun has been studied by spacecraft for decades. Throughout the years, we have come to understand what a dynamic star our sun really is. A great deal of information about our star was provided to us by a European Space Agency-led mission called Solar Orbiter. Now, the spacecraft studying the sun provides us with new information.
A stellar snake
Solar Orbiter detected a ‘tube’ of cool atmospheric gases snaking through the magnetic field of the Sun. As an important precursor to a more extensive eruption, the snake is another fascinating addition to the Solar Orbiter mission’s zoo of discoveries. On 5 September 2022, the snake was seen as Solar Orbiter was preparing for a close pass of the Sun on 12 October. A cooler plasma tube suspended by magnetic fields had been observed by the solar orbiter. The tube was located within the hotter surrounding plasma of the Sun’s atmosphere.
In plasma, atoms are so hot that they lose their outer particles, called electrons because the gas is so hot. As a result of this loss, the gas becomes electrically charged, which makes it susceptible to magnetic fields. Due to the extremely high temperature of the Sun’s atmosphere, all gas within it is plasma. The snake’s plasma follows one of the Sun’s magnetic field filaments, which reaches from side to side of our star. The magnetic field is really twisted, and plasma flows from one side to another. This change in direction occurs because you are looking down on a twisted structure,” explained David Long of the Mullard Space Science Laboratory (UCL), UK.
In this movie, images taken by the Solar Orbiter’s Extreme Ultraviolet Imager are used as a time-lapse. According to the distances involved in crossing the solar surface, the snake took about three hours to finish its journey. That means the plasma must have been moving at around 170 kilometers per second. A fascinating characteristic of the snake is that it arose from a solar active region that erupted and ejected billions of tons of plasma into space. As a result, it is possible the snake was a precursor to this event. Solar Orbiter captured it with a variety of instruments.
Sniffing out the gas
In terms of solar energetic particles detected by the spacecraft’s Energetic Particle Detector (EPD), the eruption was one of the most intense events observed so far. “It’s a fantastic collection of datasets that we are only able to obtain from Solar Orbiter,” Long explains. Even more intriguingly, the coronal mass ejection from this eruption swept over NASA’s Parker Solar Probe, allowing its instruments to measure the contents. Observing an eruption and sampling the ejected gases with Solar Orbiter’s instruments, as well as those of other spacecraft, is one of its primary science objectives. The study will assist in developing a better understanding of solar activity and how it creates ‘space weather, which can impair satellites and other technologies on Earth.
ESA operates the Solar Orbiter as an international partnership between NASA and ESA.