NASA instruments captured the moment when part of the sun appeared to break off from the giant star and was swept up in a polar vortex. But according to the scientist who drew attention to it, it’s not as bad as it sounds.
Tamitha Skov, a space weather physicist and research scientist at The Aerospace Corporation in Southern California, went viral for the news earlier this month when she shared footage from the event.
“Speaking of Polar Vortex!” she tweeted. “Material from a northern prominence has just detached from the main filament and is now circulating in a huge polar vortex around our star’s north pole.”
Basically, a large piece of plasma broke off from the surface of the sun. And the polar vortex it was swept into is not the same as a polar vortex we might experience here on Earth.
According to the National Weather Service, a polar vortex on our planet is a large low-pressure system of cold air that gets stronger in the winter. On Earth, it happens “quite regularly” and has been known to send arctic reverberations to nearby areas.
But Sara Housseal, senior duty officer for space weather operations at the U.S. Air Force’s Space Weather Operations Center, says that on the sun, it’s an event that “much less understood or known.”
“While it’s always (or not) always present, it’s not always seen,” she said, “so the filament that got caught in it allowed us to physically see and study it.”
The fracture in question occurred around noon on February 2 and can be seen in the upper left region of the sun. In a video later posted to her Patreon account, Skov further explained the significance of the event.
“Some of that material is starting to break away from the main structure and get caught up in what looks like an arctic wind,” she said. “And as that stuff starts to get dragged into it, you can see that it takes about 8 hours for that material to go completely around the pole at about 60 degrees.”
According to her preliminary calculations, Skov said the Arctic wind was moving “insanely fast” — at about 60 miles per second.
Solar physicist Scott McIntosh, deputy director of the National Center for Atmospheric Research, told Space.com that plasma breaking off the sun’s surface in this way has happened at the sun’s 55 degrees latitude in previous solar cycles, which are 11 years old. lasted.
Solar prominences, seen as the bright bits of plasma emanating from the sun’s surface and looping back down to anchor to it, are common. According to the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research, these events are “massive” and can span thousands of miles. They can also last “a few days or up to a few months”.
But, McIntosh said, he’s never seen a protrusion and vortex interact like this before.
“Once every solar cycle, it forms at the latitude of 55 degrees and starts marching toward the solar poles,” he said. “It’s very curious. There’s a big ‘why’ question around it. Why does it only move to the Pole once and then disappear and then magically come back three or four years later in the exact same region?”
The finding could have “exciting” implications for understanding the solar system, Skov said, since other gas giant planets Saturn and Jupiter are also known for their intense polar winds.
“It turns out our sun has more in common with these gas giants than one might think,” she said. “…So while the sun still holds some of its mysteries, we may have gotten one step closer today.”
Skov told ABC Radio Melbourne it was a “very rare sighting” about the goings-on on the surface of the sun.
“This material allowed us to really observe the wind and how fast things were moving,” she said. “…We really need to learn more about how this big, magnetic activity engine — what we call the magnetic dynamo — how it works, because that’s really what generates space weather.”
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