NASA mission to sun answers questions on solar wind

The solar winds from the nearest star, which generate the aurora borealis and can have an impact on the planet's communications systems, have been better understood thanks to a NASA mission to touch the sun. The Parker Solar Probe has collected data on the solar wind that emanates from the sun's coronal holes and travels toward Earth, providing answers to issues that astronomers have pondered for more than 60 years.

Researchers from Berkeley claim that the data collected from the probe's passage through the sun's upper atmosphere in 2021 will aid in the prediction of so-called "solar storms," which produce "beautiful auroras on Earth" but also "wreak havoc with satellites and the electrical grid."

Solar winds normally miss Earth when coronal holes in the sun occur near the poles. However, these holes form on the surface of the sun every 11 years and shoot solar wind blasts toward Earth.

To examine these winds, the probe came within 13 million kilometers of the sun. According to a UC Berkeley press release, "it's like seeing jets of water emanating from a showerhead through the blast of water hitting you in the face."

According to James Drake of the University of Maryland-College Park and Stuart D. Bale of the University of California, Berkeley, the probe picked up streams of high-energy particles. These are consistent with the enormous convection cells, or supergranulations, found inside coronal holes, indicating that coronal holes are where the "fast" solar winds originate.

The wind originates from a process known as magnetic reconnection, and by the time it travels the 93 million miles to Earth, "it has evolved into a homogeneous, turbulent flow of roiling magnetic fields intertwined with charged particles that interact with Earth's own magnetic field and dump electrical energy into the upper atmosphere."

At the Earth's poles, this results in vivid auroras that may be seen, but it also has negative effects on Earth.

According to the University of Chicago, solar winds have certain advantages, such as shielding Earth from errant cosmic rays. However, systems like GPS, banking, and aircraft radio communications might all be affected by severe solar winds.

The Carrington Event, a powerful solar explosion that occurred in 1859, destroyed the telegraph and electrical infrastructure. According to the university, the incident caused the aurora borealis to continue shining brightly until the early morning hours.

In order to address problems that have baffled scientists for more than 60 years, such as "Why is the corona much hotter than the Sun's surface (the photosphere)?," the probe was launched in 2018. What causes the solar wind to quicken? According to NASA, "what are the origins of high-energy solar particles.

According to NASA, the Parker Solar Probe is shielded by a 4.5-inch-thick carbon composite that can endure temperatures of around 2,500 degrees Fahrenheit. However, it won't be able to approach the sun's surface any closer than 4 million miles without burning up. Bale claims that they will strengthen their conclusions using data collected at that distance.