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The sun’s outer atmosphere is far more complex than previously thought

Newly analyzed images could help solve mysteries about solar wind and the superhot corona

1:00pm, December 19, 2017
sun's corona

A CALM FACADE  The outer corona of the sun appears smooth and calm. But freshly analyzed images from NASA’s STEREO spacecraft, which blocks out the sun (center) to bring the corona into view, shows unexpected texture.

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NEW ORLEANS — Despite its smooth appearance, the sun’s wispy outer atmosphere is surprisingly full of knots, whorls and blobs.

Newly analyzed observations from NASA’s STEREO spacecraft show that the sun’s outer corona is just as complicated as the highly structured inner corona, solar physicists reported December 12 at the fall meeting of the American Geophysical Union. That previously unseen structure could help solve some of the sun’s biggest puzzles, including how the solar wind is born and why the corona is so much hotter than the solar surface.

The corona is made up of charged plasma, which roils in famous loops and fans that follow magnetic field lines emerging from the surface of the sun (SN Online: 8/17/17). At a certain distance from the sun, though, that plasma escapes the corona and streams through the solar system as the solar wind, a constant flow of charged particles that pummels the planets, including Earth (SN Online: 8/18/17).

But solar physicists don’t know where the plasma gets enough energy to accelerate away from the massive, magnetic sun. And they don’t understand why the corona, which sizzles at several million degrees Celsius, has such higher temperatures than the solar surface, which chills at a mere 5,500° C (SN Online: 8/20/17).

Both problems might be cleared up by better understanding an energetic process called reconnection, which happens when magnetic field lines merge when they get too close to each other. Reconnection releases energy and helps move plasma around, so the process could be important to heating the corona and driving solar wind.

But in the best observations until now, the outer corona appeared smooth and uniform. To explain that smoothness, field lines would have to keep their distance from each other without a lot of reconnection. What’s more, physicists couldn’t tell where the boundary between the corona and the solar wind began, which might help to find that missing energy source.

“That’s changed,” solar physicist Craig DeForest of the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colo., said at the AGU meeting. “Using STEREO, we’ve recently been able to drill in deeply enough to see the transition at the outer edge of the corona, where the dynamics change from what we might call coronal plasma to what we might call the young solar wind plasma.”

Story continues below video

DEEP VIEW This movie was made using three days of data from NASA’s STEREO spacecraft, which blocked out the sun (center) to see the outer corona better. The data revealed structures, including blobs and knots, in that outer zone that were not apparent in earlier movies.

DeForest and colleagues collected data for three days with STEREO in 2014 to gain more detail about small-scale changes in the outer corona than previously obtained. The researchers also processed the resulting images in a new way to bring those changes into focus.

Surprisingly, the team found that the outer corona is full of moving blobs and fine streams of plasma that vary in density by a factor of 10, suggesting that the magnetic field lines there are moving and merging more than scientists thought. “It turns out the apparent smoothness is a reflection of our instruments, not the corona itself,” DeForest says. “There’s almost certainly reconnection in the outer corona.”

The researchers also found that the corona probably fades into the solar wind between 14 million and 56 million kilometers away from the sun — about 10 to 40 times the sun’s diameter. That’s still a big range, but NASA’s Parker Solar Probe spacecraft, scheduled to launch in 2018, will fly right through that boundary. The probe will swoop within 6.4 million kilometers of the sun and take the first direct measurements of the corona — and perhaps figure out more precisely where the corona becomes the solar wind.

For now, the STEREO observations “are just tantalizing hints at an entire new set of phenomena,” DeForest says. Understanding the details of those processes “is going to require both careful analysis from Parker Solar Probe and also new, better imaging instruments.”

Solar physicist Steven Cranmer of the University of Colorado Boulder, who has made simulations of magnetic reconnection in the outer corona, finds the results exciting. Questions about the sun’s hot corona and the acceleration of the solar wind are still unsolved “not because of a lack of ideas, but because there are too many ideas,” he says. “I think we're getting close to having the data that will let us rule out a good swath of these proposed ideas.” 


C. DeForest et al. Mapping the territory: What current remote sensing tells us to expect for PSP. American Geophysical Union meeting, New Orleans, December 12, 2017.

Further Reading

L. Grossman. Eclipse watchers will go after the biggest solar mystery: Why is the corona so hot? Science News Online, August 20, 2017.

L. Grossman. Where does the solar wind come from? The eclipse may offer answers. Science News Online, August 18, 2017.

L. Grossman. Why are the loops in the sun’s atmosphere so neat and tidy? Science News Online, August 17, 2017.

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