Where does the solar wind come from? The eclipse may offer answers

A look at where the sun’s surface meets its atmosphere could reveal the wind’s origins


CHARGED UP  Auroras are triggered in Earth’s atmosphere by the solar wind, a constant stream of charged particles wafting away from the sun. This photo of an aurora was taken from the International Space Station on June 26.


The sun can’t keep its hands to itself. A constant flow of charged particles streams away from the sun at hundreds of kilometers per second, battering vulnerable planets in its path.

This barrage is called the solar wind, and it has had a direct role in shaping life in the solar system. It’s thought to have stripped away much of Mars’ atmosphere (SN: 4/29/17, p. 20). Earth is protected from a similar fate only by its strong magnetic field, which guides the solar wind around the planet.

But scientists don’t understand some key details of how the wind works. It originates in an area where the sun’s surface meets its atmosphere. Like winds on Earth, the solar wind is gusty — it travels at different speeds in different areas. It’s fastest in regions where the sun’s atmosphere, the corona, is dark. Winds whip past these coronal holes at 800 kilometers per second. But the wind whooshes at only around 300 kilometers per second over extended, pointy wisps called coronal streamers, which give the corona its crownlike appearance. No one knows why the wind is fickle.

BLANK SPACE Coronal holes like this one imaged by NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory in May 2014 are regions with little plasma, so they appear dark in certain wavelengths. Although they look empty, the holes are where the solar wind is strongest. SDO/NASA

The Aug. 21 solar eclipse gives astronomers an ideal opportunity to catch the solar wind in action in the inner corona. One group, Nat Gopalswamy of NASA’s Goddard Spaceflight Center in Greenbelt, Md., and his colleagues, will test a new version of an instrument called a polarimeter, built to measure the temperature and speed of electrons leaving the sun. Measurements will start close to the sun’s surface and extend out to around 5.6 million kilometers, or eight times the radius of the sun.

“We should be able to detect the baby solar wind,” Gopalswamy says.

Set up at a high school in Madras, Ore., the polarimeter will separate out light that has been polarized, or had its electric field organized in one direction, from light whose electric field oscillates in all sorts of directions. Because electrons scatter polarized light more than non-polarized light, that observation will give the scientists a bead on what the electrons are doing, and by extension, what the solar wind is doing — how fast it flows, how hot it is and even where it comes from.

Gopalswamy and colleagues will also take images in four different wavelengths of light, as another measurement of speed and temperature. Mapping the fast and slow solar winds close to the surface of the sun can give clues to how they are accelerated.

solar wind
STEADY STREAM This enhanced view of the solar wind, taken by NASA’s Solar Terrestrial Relations Observatory (STEREO), shows charged particles flowing away from the sun and permeating the solar system. Craig DeForest, SwRI
The team tried out an earlier version of this instrument during an eclipse in 1999 in Turkey. But that instrument required the researchers to flip through three different polarization filters to capture all the information that they wanted. Cycling through the filters using a hand-turned wheel was slow and clunky — a problem when totality, the period when the moon completely blocks the sun, only lasts about two minutes.

The team’s upgraded polarimeter is designed so it can simultaneously gather data through all three filters and in four wavelengths of light. “The main requirement is that we have to take these images as close in time as possible, so the corona doesn’t change from one period to the next,” Gopalswamy says. One exposure will take 2 to 4 seconds, plus a 6-second wait between filters. That will give the team about 36 images total.

Gopalswamy and his team first tested this instrument in Indonesia for the March 2016 solar eclipse. “That experiment failed because of noncooperation from nature,” Gopalswamy says. “Ten minutes before the eclipse, the rain started pouring down.”

This year, they chose Madras because, historically, it’s the least cloud-covered place on the eclipse path. But they’re still crossing their fingers for clear skies.

Lisa Grossman is the astronomy writer. She has a degree in astronomy from Cornell University and a graduate certificate in science writing from University of California, Santa Cruz. She lives near Boston.

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