- Solar wind
The solar wind is a stream of charged particles ejected from the upper atmosphere of the Sun. It mostly consists of electrons and protons with energies usually between 1.5 and 10 keV. The stream of particles varies in temperature and speed over time. These particles can escape the Sun's gravity because of their high kinetic energy and the high temperature of the corona.
The solar wind creates the heliosphere, a vast bubble in the interstellar medium that surrounds the Solar System. Other phenomena include geomagnetic storms that can knock out power grids on Earth, the aurorae (northern and southern lights), and the plasma tails of comets that always point away from the Sun.
The continuous stream of particles flowing outward from the Sun was first suggested by British astronomer Richard C. Carrington. In 1859, Carrington and Richard Hodgson independently made the first observation of what would later be called a solar flare. This is a sudden outburst of energy from the Sun's atmosphere. On the following day, a geomagnetic storm was observed, and Carrington suspected that there might be a connection. George Fitzgerald later suggested that matter was being regularly accelerated away from the Sun and was reaching the Earth after several days.
In 1910 British astrophysicist Arthur Eddington essentially suggested the existence of the solar wind, without naming it, in a footnote to an article on Comet Morehouse. The idea never fully caught on even though Eddington had also made a similar suggestion at a Royal Institution address the previous year. In the latter case, he postulated that the ejected material consisted of electrons while in his study of Comet Morehouse he supposed them to be ions. The first person to suggest that they were both was Norwegian physicist Kristian Birkeland. His geomagnetic surveys showed that auroral activity was nearly uninterrupted. As these displays and other geomagnetic activity were being produced by particles from the Sun, he concluded that the Earth was being continually bombarded by "rays of electric corpuscles emitted by the Sun". In 1916, Birkeland proposed that, "From a physical point of view it is most probable that solar rays are neither exclusively negative nor positive rays, but of both kinds". In other words, the solar wind consists of both negative electrons and positive ions. Three years later in 1919, Frederick Lindemann also suggested that particles of both polarities, protons as well as electrons, come from the Sun.
Around the 1930s, scientists had determined that the temperature of the solar corona must be a million degrees Celsius because of the way it stood out into space (as seen during total eclipses). Later spectroscopic work confirmed this extraordinary temperature. In the mid-1950s the British mathematician Sydney Chapman calculated the properties of a gas at such a temperature and determined it was such a superb conductor of heat that it must extend way out into space, beyond the orbit of Earth. Also in the 1950s, a German scientist named Ludwig Biermann became interested in the fact that no matter whether a comet is headed towards or away from the Sun, its tail always points away from the Sun. Biermann postulated that this happens because the Sun emits a steady stream of particles that pushes the comet's tail away. Wilfried Schröder claims in his book, Who First Discovered the Solar Wind?, that the German astronomer Paul Ahnert was the first to relate solar wind to comet tail direction based on observations of the comet Whipple-Fedke (1942g).
Eugene Parker realised that the heat flowing from the Sun in Chapman's model and the comet tail blowing away from the Sun in Biermann's hypothesis had to be the result of the same phenomenon, which he termed the "solar wind". Parker showed that even though the Sun's corona is strongly attracted by solar gravity, it is such a good conductor of heat that it is still very hot at large distances. Since gravity weakens as distance from the Sun increases, the outer coronal atmosphere escapes supersonically into interstellar space. Furthermore, Parker was the first person to notice that the weakening effect of the gravity has the same effect on hydrodynamic flow as a de Laval nozzle: it incites a transition from subsonic to supersonic flow.
Opposition to Parker's hypothesis on the solar wind was strong. The paper he submitted to the Astrophysical Journal in 1958 was rejected by two reviewers. It was saved by the editor Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar (who later received the 1983 Nobel Prize in physics).
In January 1959, the Soviet satellite Luna 1 first directly observed the solar wind and measured its strength. They were detected by hemispherical ion traps. The discovery, made by Konstantin Gringauz, was verified by Luna 2, Luna 3 and by the more distant measurements of Venera 1. Three years later its measurement was performed by Americans (Neugebauer and collaborators) using the Mariner 2 spacecraft.
However, the acceleration of the fast wind is still not understood and cannot be fully explained by Parker's theory. The gravitational and electromagnetic explanation for this acceleration is, however, detailed in an earlier paper by 1970 Nobel laureate for Physics, Hannes Alfvén.
The first numerical simulation of the solar wind in the solar corona including closed and open field lines was performed by Pneuman and Knopp in 1971. The magnetohydrodynamics equations in steady state were solved iteratively starting with an initial dipolar configuration.
In the late 1990s the Ultraviolet Coronal Spectrometer (UVCS) instrument on board the SOHO spacecraft observed the acceleration region of the fast solar wind emanating from the poles of the Sun, and found that the wind accelerates much faster than can be accounted for by thermodynamic expansion alone. Parker's model predicted that the wind should make the transition to supersonic flow at an altitude of about 4 solar radii from the photosphere; but the transition (or "sonic point") now appears to be much lower, perhaps only 1 solar radius above the photosphere, suggesting that some additional mechanism accelerates the solar wind away from the Sun.
While early models of the solar wind used primarily thermal energy to accelerate the material, by the 1960s it was clear that thermal acceleration alone cannot account for the high speed of solar wind. An additional unknown acceleration mechanism is required, and likely relates to magnetic fields in the solar atmosphere.
The Sun's corona, or extended outer layer, is a region of plasma that is heated to over a million degrees Celsius. As a result of thermal collisions, the particles within the inner corona have a range and distribution of speeds described by a Maxwellian distribution. The mean velocity of these particles is about 145 km/s, which is well below the solar escape velocity of 618 km/s. However, a few of the particles achieve energies sufficient to reach the terminal velocity of 400 km/s, which allows them to feed the solar wind. At the same temperature, electrons, due to their much smaller mass, reach escape velocity and build up an electric field that further accelerates ions - charged atoms - away from the Sun.
The total number of particles carried away from the Sun by the solar wind is about 1.3×1036 per second. Thus, the total mass loss each year is about (2–3)×10−14 solar masses, or 6.7 billion tons per hour. This is equivalent to losing a mass equal to the Earth every 150 million years. However, only about 0.01% of the Sun's total mass has been lost through the solar wind. Other stars have much stronger stellar winds that result in significantly higher mass loss rates.
The solar wind is divided into two components, respectively termed the slow solar wind and the fast solar wind. The slow solar wind has a velocity of about 400 km/s, a temperature of 1.4–1.6×106 K and a composition that is a close match to the corona. By contrast, the fast solar wind has a typical velocity of 750 km/s, a temperature of 8×105 K and it nearly matches the composition of the Sun's photosphere. The slow solar wind is twice as dense and more variable in intensity than the fast solar wind. The slow wind also has a more complex structure, with turbulent regions and large-scale structures.
The slow solar wind appears to originate from a region around the Sun's equatorial belt that is known as the "streamer belt". Coronal streamers extend outward from this region, carrying plasma from the interior along closed magnetic loops. Observations of the Sun between 1996 and 2001 showed that emission of the slow solar wind occurred between latitudes of 30–35° around the equator during the solar minimum (the period of lowest solar activity), then expanded toward the poles as the minimum waned. By the time of the solar maximum, the poles were also emitting a slow solar wind.
The fast solar wind is thought to originate from coronal holes, which are funnel-like regions of open field lines in the Sun's magnetic field. Such open lines are particularly prevalent around the Sun's magnetic poles. The plasma source is small magnetic fields created by convection cells in the solar atmosphere. These fields confine the plasma and transport it into the narrow necks of the coronal funnels, which are located only 20,000 kilometers above the photosphere. The plasma is released into the funnel when these magnetic field lines reconnect.
Coronal mass ejection
Both the fast and slow solar wind can be interrupted by large, fast-moving bursts of plasma called interplanetary coronal mass ejections, or ICMEs. ICMEs are the interplanetary manifestation of solar coronal mass ejections, which are caused by release of magnetic energy at the Sun. CMEs are often called "solar storms" or "space storms" in the popular media. They are sometimes, but not always, associated with solar flares, which are another manifestation of magnetic energy release at the Sun. ICMEs cause shock waves in the thin plasma of the heliosphere, launching electromagnetic waves and accelerating particles (mostly protons and electrons) to form showers of ionizing radiation that precede the CME.
When an CME impacts the Earth's magnetosphere, it temporarily deforms the Earth's magnetic field, changing the direction of compass needles and inducing large electrical ground currents in Earth itself; this is called a geomagnetic storm and it is a global phenomenon. CME impacts can induce magnetic reconnection in Earth's magnetotail (the midnight side of the magnetosphere); this launches protons and electrons downward toward Earth's atmosphere, where they form the aurora.
ICMEs are not the only cause of space weather. Different patches on the Sun are known to give rise to slightly different speeds and densities of wind depending on local conditions. In isolation, each of these different wind streams would form a spiral with a slightly different angle, with fast-moving streams moving out more directly and slow-moving streams wrapping more around the Sun. Faster-moving streams tend to overtake slower streams that originate westward of them on the Sun, forming turbulent co-rotating interaction regions that give rise to wave motions and accelerated particles, and that affect Earth's magnetosphere in the same way as, but more gently than, CMEs.
Effect on the Solar System
Over the lifetime of the Sun, the surface rotation rate has decreased significantly. This loss of rotation is thought to have been caused by interaction of the Sun's surface layers with the escaping solar wind. The wind is considered responsible for the tails of comets, along with the Sun's radiation. The solar wind contributes to fluctuations in celestial radio waves observed on the Earth, through an effect called interplanetary scintillation.
As the solar wind approaches a planet that has a well-developed magnetic field (such as Earth, Jupiter and Saturn), the particles are deflected by the Lorentz force. This region, known as the magnetosphere, causes the particles to travel around the planet rather than bombarding the atmosphere or surface. The magnetosphere is roughly shaped like a hemisphere on the side facing the Sun, then is drawn out in a long wake on the opposite side. The boundary of this region is called the magnetopause, and some of the particles are able to penetrate the magnetosphere through this region by partial reconnection of the magnetic field lines.
The solar wind is responsible for the overall shape of Earth's magnetosphere, and fluctuations in its speed, density, direction, and entrained magnetic field strongly affect Earth's local space environment. For example, the levels of ionizing radiation and radio interference can vary by factors of hundreds to thousands; and the shape and location of the magnetopause and bow shock wave upstream of it can change by several Earth radii, exposing geosynchronous satellites to the direct solar wind. These phenomena are collectively called space weather.
The solar wind affects the other incoming cosmic rays interacting with the atmosphere of planets. Moreover, planets with a weak or non-existent magnetosphere are subject to atmospheric stripping by the solar wind.
Venus, the nearest and most similar planet to Earth in our Solar System, has an atmosphere 100 times denser than our own. Modern space probes have discovered a comet-like tail that extends to the orbit of the Earth.
Earth itself is largely protected from the solar wind by its magnetic field, which deflects most of the charged particles; however some of the charged particles are trapped in the Van Allen radiation belt. A smaller number of particles from the solar wind manage to travel, as though on an electromagnetic energy transmission line, to the Earth's upper atmosphere and ionosphere in the auroral zones. The only time the solar wind is observable on the Earth is when it is strong enough to produce phenomena such as the aurora and geomagnetic storms. Bright auroras strongly heat the ionosphere, causing its plasma to expand into the magnetosphere, increasing the size of the plasma geosphere, and causing escape of atmospheric matter into the solar wind. Geomagnetic storms result when the pressure of plasmas contained inside the magnetosphere is sufficiently large to inflate and thereby distort the geomagnetic field.
Mars is larger than Mercury and four times farther from the Sun, and yet even here it is thought that the solar wind has stripped away up to a third of its original atmosphere, leaving a layer 1/100th as dense as the Earth's. It is believed the mechanism for this atmospheric stripping is gas being caught in bubbles of magnetic field, which are ripped off by solar winds.
Mercury, the nearest planet to the Sun, bears the full brunt of the solar wind, and its atmosphere is vestigial and transient, its surface bathed in radiation.
Mercury has an intrinsic magnetic field, for normal solar wind conditions, the solar wind cannot penetrate the magnetosphere created around Mercury, but particles only reach the surface in the cusp regions. During coronal mass ejections however, the magnetopause may get pressed into the surface of the planet, and thus in these conditions, the solar wind may interact freely with the planetary surface.
The Earth's Moon has no atmosphere or intrinsic magnetic field, and consequently its surface is bombarded with the full solar wind. The Project Apollo missions deployed passive aluminum collectors in an attempt to sample the solar wind, and lunar soil returned for study confirmed that the lunar regolith is enriched in atomic nuclei deposited from the solar wind. There has been speculation that these elements may prove to be useful resources for future lunar colonies.
The solar wind "blows a bubble" in the interstellar medium (the rarefied hydrogen and helium gas that permeates the galaxy). The point where the solar wind's strength is no longer great enough to push back the interstellar medium is known as the heliopause, and is often considered to be the outer "border" of the Solar System. The distance to the heliopause is not precisely known, and probably varies widely depending on the current velocity of the solar wind and the local density of the interstellar medium, but it is known to lie far outside the orbit of Pluto. Scientists hope to gain more perspective on the heliopause from data acquired through the Interstellar Boundary Explorer (IBEX) mission, launched in October 2008.
- From May 10, 1999 to May 12, NASA's Advanced Composition Explorer (ACE) and WIND (spacecraft) spacecraft observed a 98% decrease of solar wind density. This allowed energetic electrons from the Sun to flow to Earth in narrow beams known as "strahl", which caused a highly unusual "polar rain" event, in which a visible aurora appeared over the North Pole. In addition, Earth's magnetosphere increased to between 5 and 6 times its normal size.
- See also the solar variation entry.
- December 13, 2010, Voyager 1 determined that the velocity of the solar wind, at its location 10.8 billion miles from Earth has now slowed to zero. "We have gotten to the point where the wind from the Sun, which until now has always had an outward motion, is no longer moving outward; it is only moving sideways so that it can end up going down the tail of the heliosphere, which is a comet-shaped-like object," said Dr. Edward Stone, the Voyager project scientist.
- Advanced Composition Explorer
- Condegram spiral plot
- Dyson-Harrop satellite
- Electric sail
- Helium Focusing Cone
- Interplanetary Magnetic Field
- Interplanetary medium
- Magnetic sail
- Parker spiral
- Shock wave
- Solar Cycle.
- Solar sail
- Stellar wind
- Solar and Heliospheric Observatory
- WIND (spacecraft)
- Solar Probe Plus
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- ^ a b Magnetic sails are propelled almost entirely due to the force of the solar wind. Solar sails are propelled almost entirely due to the force of the Sun's EM radiation, not the solar wind.
- Sun|trek website An educational resource for teachers and students about the Sun and its effect on the Earth
- Cluster shows how solar wind is heated
- Could solar wind power Earth? October 4, 2010 by Miranda Marquit
- Solar Or Wind Power? Why Not Both? By Eric Bland, Wed Sep 29, 2010
- The Solar Wind Power Satellite as an alternative to a traditional Dyson Sphere and its implications for remote detection International Journal of Astrobiology (2010), 9: 89-99
The Sun Internal structure Atmosphere Variation Heliosphere Related topics Magnetospherics Submagnetosphere Earth's magnetosphere Solar wind Satellites Research projects Other magnetospheres Related topics
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