Here's a new one: shooting stars have been detected in our Sun's Corona.
A team of astronomers from Europe led by Northumbria University, Newcastle, has made a remarkable discovery – “shooting stars” in the Sun’s atmosphere. In a novel development, the European Space Agency’s Solar Orbiter (SolO) has observed meteor-like fireballs, or “shooting stars,” in the phenomena known as coronal rain. The research, led by Assistant Professor Patrick Antolin, will be unveiled this week at the National Astronomy Meeting (NAM 2023).
“Shooting Stars” Detected in the Sun’s Corona
Contrary to what its name suggests, coronal rain doesn’t involve water. It is a condensation process where the Sun’s fiery matter clumps together due to sudden temperature drops. This occurrence, seen in the corona, the outermost part of the Sun’s atmosphere, results in super-dense plasma clumps, as wide as 250 kilometers. Affected by gravity, these fiery plasma clumps plummet back to the Sun at speeds exceeding 100 kilometers per second.
SolO’s Trailblazing Journey
The ground-breaking research will feature in a special issue of Astronomy & Astrophysics, dedicated to SolO’s first close perihelion to the Sun. In Spring 2022, SolO came exceptionally close to the Sun, cruising at just 49 million kilometers away, a third of the distance between the Earth and the Sun. This proximity enabled the best-ever spatial resolution of the solar corona.
Solar Meteors: A Novel Phenomenon
SolO’s high-resolution imaging captured the clumps of coronal rain and the immediate heating and compression of gas underneath them. This observation revealed a brief, intense brightening, an upward surge of material, and shockwaves that reheat the surrounding gas.
While Earth’s ‘shooting stars’ occur when meteoroids enter our atmosphere at high speeds and disintegrate, the Sun’s ‘shooting stars’ likely make it to the solar surface intact due to the thin and low-density corona. The impacts of these ‘shooting stars’ had never been observed until SolO’s revelation.
Charting the Invisible
In contrast to the Earth’s atmosphere, the corona’s magnetic field prevents the falling gas from undergoing ablation, where heated material is stripped off the object. Instead, the partially ionized gas follows the magnetic field lines, which funnel the gas, making the process harder to capture.
Lead author Antolin said, “SolO orbits close enough to the Sun to detect small-scale phenomena within the corona, like the effect of the rain. This provides an indirect probe of the coronal environment, crucial to understanding its composition and thermodynamics. Just detecting coronal rain is a huge step forward in solar physics.”
In a lighter note, Antolin added, “If humans were alien beings capable of living on the Sun’s surface, we would constantly be rewarded with amazing views of shooting stars, but we would need to watch out for our heads!”
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