The Solar Orbiter mission, jointly operated by NASA and ESA, has captured images of small jets or “picoflares” on the Sun. Credit goes to the ESA and the NASA/Solar Orbiter/EUI team, with acknowledgment given to Lakshmi Pradeep Chitta from the Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research, under the CC BY-SA 3.0 IGO license.
As the Solar Orbiter spacecraft was navigating through space, an aperture emerged in its atmosphere adjacent to the southern pole of the Sun.
In fact, what appeared to be a hole was not actually a hole, but rather a coronal hole – a region in the Sun’s outer atmosphere where the temperature has significantly decreased. These areas, referred to as “cold” spots, do not emit as much brightness as the surrounding regions, resulting in their dark appearance resembling holes in images.
In March 2022, Solar Orbiter made a remarkable discovery as it observed a hole, revealing a sight never witnessed before – minuscule flames bursting out in all directions, as detected by its potent extreme-ultraviolet instrument.
Meet the ‘Picoflares’
Take a close observation of the Sun’s edge in the video footage provided. Notice a small flare extending from the surface of the sun, appearing as a dark line.
In the past, scientists were unable to identify these miniature flares as they are considerably small, at least in comparison to the scale of the sun.
Solar physicist Lakshmi Pradeep Chitta informed Nature that the vibrant plasma jets have a length of several hundred kilometers and vanish within a span of 20 to 100 seconds. Furthermore, Chitta revealed that the energy emitted by an individual is equivalent to the energy consumed by approximately 3,000 to 4,000 households in the United States over a year.
Scientists are well acquainted with solar flares, and the one mentioned here is insignificant in comparison. Referred to as an X-class flare, the largest type releases energy equivalent to that of a billion hydrogen bombs. This amount is a billion times greater than the energy emitted by the nano-flare, which is situated at the opposite extreme.
The Sun experiences an eruption of an X-class flare (lower right), resulting in the release of a powerful surge of electromagnetic radiation. This event is captured by the NASA Solar Dynamics Observatory.
According to a recent study published in the journal Science, the recently found “picoflares” possess energy levels that are 1,000 times lower than that of the nanoflare and one trillionth the energy of an X-flare.
The researchers suspect that the presence of these picoflares near the coronal hole indicates their existence throughout the rest of the Sun as well.
Picoflare may be the source of the solar wind that is blowing Earth
An animation of the solar wind shows particles moving from the Sun toward Earth.NASA
The discovery of the picoflare has the potential to unravel a significant enigma surrounding the Sun – the origin of its formidable emission of electrically charged particles and robust magnetic fields that relentlessly impact Earth.
When coronal holes or large solar flares are directed towards our planet, the stream known as the “solar wind” becomes highly energized. This intensified flow can cause disruptions such as radio signal blockages on Earth, power grid failures, and even satellite displacements from their intended orbits.
The positive aspect of a solar storm is that it gives rise to stunning auroras, also known as the northern lights.
In order to enhance Earth’s preparedness for the impacts of solar wind, scientists are determined to comprehend it thoroughly and improve their forecasting capabilities.
Scientists have determined that picoflares potentially play a crucial role as a primary supplier of the solar wind. These frequent small eruptions propel magnetized plasma into space, suggesting a continuous occurrence. As a result, scientists have inferred that these picoflares likely contribute substantial quantities of material to the solar wind, potentially sustaining it on their own.
Looking at the Sun up close, on a smaller scale, could reveal its secrets
The pictures captured by Solar Orbiter are the most proximate images ever obtained of the Sun. These images are a result of collaborative efforts involving the Solar Orbiter/EUI Team from ESA and NASA, as well as CSL, IAS, MPS, PMOD/WRC, ROB, UCL/MSSL.
The latest discoveries made by NASA’s Parker Solar Probe provide evidence in favor of the notion that the solar wind is being powered by a stream of continuous flares, which were previously unseen. The scientists involved also documented additional occurrences of “small-scale jetting activity.”
Chitta, the leader of the Solar Orbiter study and a team at the Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research, informed Space.com that jets in the solar corona have been previously observed. However, the picoflare jets we witnessed are a novel type, being the smallest and least powerful jets in the solar corona.
According to the European Space Agency, there is a possibility that currently undetectable, smaller and more frequent jets could be responsible for fueling the solar wind.
As the Sun Gets More Active, It’s a Good Time to Study the Solar Wind
On January 10, 2023, a solar flare bursts forth, as seen as a luminous flash in the upper left portion of the image captured by NASA/SDO.
In 2020, Solar Orbiter was launched by NASA and ESA, aiming to examine the origins of these winds. Scientists aspire to enhance their ability to predict solar weather in the future.
With the Sun’s activity approaching the peak of its 11-year cycle, now is an opportune moment to delve into studying that particular question. Notably, flares, coronal holes, and other potent explosions are increasingly prevalent on the Sun.
Nature was told by Andrei Zhukov, a solar physicist at the Royal Observatory of Belgium in Brussels, who collaborates with Solar Orbiter and co-authored the new study, that it is now a goldmine in every aspect.
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