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NASA’s Parker Solar Probe Flies Toward the Sun

NASA's Parker Solar Probe has achieved a remarkable feat by getting close enough to the Sun to study the intricate details of solar wind. This has revealed information that was previously hidden as the solar wind left the Sun's corona in a uniform stream of charged particles.

Understanding the origin of the solar wind is crucial for predicting solar storms, which are responsible for auroras on Earth, but they also disrupt satellites and power grids. In a forthcoming article in the journal Nature, a team led by Professor Stuart D. Bale from the University of California, Berkeley, and James Drake from the University of Maryland-College Park, reveals the Parker Solar Probe has found that coronal holes are where solar wind originates.

According to their findings, some exceptionally high-energy particles detected by the Parker Solar Probe, launched in 2018, can only be explained by magnetic reconnection.

Coronal holes are areas where magnetic field lines extend outward from the Sun's surface without looping back, creating open field lines that expand into space. During the Sun’s quiet periods, these holes are at the poles and generate winds that don’t make contact with Earth. However, every 11 years, the Sun becomes active as its magnetic field flips. This results in the generation of solar wind that moves directly towards Earth.

Based on the team's analysis, coronal holes resemble shower heads, with evenly spaced jets emerging from bright spots where magnetic field lines converge and diverge from the Sun's surface. The scientists propose that when oppositely directed magnetic fields intersect within these regions, which can be as wide as 18,000 miles, they often break and reconnect, ejecting charged particles from the Sun that move ten to 100 times faster than the average solar wind.

These showerhead-like structures likely correspond to the bright jets observed from Earth within coronal holes, confirming recent findings reported by Nour Raouafi, a co-author of the study and the Parker Solar Probe project scientist at the Applied Physics Laboratory at Johns Hopkins University. "Solving the mystery of the solar wind has been a six-decade dream of many generations of scientists," says Raouafi. "Now, we are grasping at the physical phenomenon that drives the solar wind at its source — the corona."

[Source: Johns Hopkins University; NASA]

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