Merging magnetic blobs fuel the sun’s huge plasma eruptions

Before coronal mass ejections, plasma shoots up, breaks apart and then comes together again

coronal mass ejections

BURSTING WITH PLASMA  Solar scientists have long wondered what drives big bursts of plasma called coronal mass ejections. New analysis of an old eruption suggests the driving force might be merging magnetic blobs.


Solar plasma eruptions are the sum of many parts, a new look at a 2013 coronal mass ejection shows.

These bright, energetic bursts happen when loops of magnetism in the sun’s wispy outer atmosphere, or corona, suddenly snap and send plasma and charged particles hurtling through space (SN Online: 8/16/17).

But it was unclear how coronal mass ejections, or CMEs, get started. One theory suggests that a twisted tube of magnetic field lines called a flux rope hangs out on the solar surface for hours or days before a sudden perturbation sends it expanding off the solar surface.

Another idea is that the sun’s magnetic field lines are forced so close together that the lines break and recombine with each other. The energy of that magnetic reconnection forms a short-lived flux rope that quickly erupts.

“We do not know which comes first,” the flux rope or the reconnection, says solar physicist Bernhard Kliem of the University of Potsdam in Germany.

Kliem and his colleagues scrutinized a CME recorded on May 13, 2013, by NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory. They found that before it erupted, a vertical sheet of plasma split into blobs, marking breaking and merging magnetic field lines. Over about half an hour, the blobs shot upward and merged into a large flux rope, which briefly arced over the solar surface before erupting into space. That quick growth supports the idea that CMEs grow through magnetic reconnection, the team, led by Tingyu Gou and Rui Liu of the University of Science and Technology of China in Hefei, reports March 6 in Science Advances.

“This was actually surprising, that this reconnection was rather fast,” Kliem says.  That speedy setup might make it more difficult to predict when CMEs are about to occur. That’s too bad because, when aimed at Earth, these bursts cause auroras and can knock out power grids and damage satellites.

A STAR’S CME IS BORN  The sun’s coronal mass ejections seem to result from many small plasma blobs combining. In this video, enhanced data from NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory shows a vertical sheet of plasma suddenly break into blobs at about 17 seconds. Shortly after, the blobs rearrange themselves into a loop, and the loop bursts off the sun’s surface. At 30 seconds, more distant observations from the SOHO telescope show the CME’s progress. (A second, unrelated CME erupts off the right side of the sun near the video’s end.)

Editor’s note: This story was updated March 11, 2019, to clarify that the corona is the sun’s outer atmosphere, rather than the atmosphere.

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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