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ESA’s solar probe captures the reversal of the Sun’s magnetic field, confirming solar wind theory

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The European Space Agency’s Solar Orbiter probe could have just captured evidence of a solar magnetic field reversing directions, bolstering a theory for a way the well-known, but mysterious phenomenon takes place.

On 25 March, Solar Orbiter passed throughout the orbit of the planet Mercury to take close up images of the Sun. Using a coronagraph, a tool that blocks out the disk of the Sun in the identical way because the Moon during a complete solar eclipse, the spacecraft’s instruments captured a wierd S-shaped kink within the wispy streams of plasma seen within the corona, the extremely hot, outer atmosphere of the Sun.

This S-shaped kink may be the image of a solar magnetic field reversing, often known as a magnetic switchback.

“I might say that this primary image of a magnetic switchback within the solar corona has revealed the mystery of their origin,” Daniele Telloni, an astrophysicist on the National Institute for Astrophysics – Astrophysical Observatory of Torino, Italy, and lead creator of a latest paper on the phenomenon published in The Astrophysical Journal Letters, said in a press release.

Space probes had detected solar magnetic switchbacks as early because the Seventies, based on an ESA blog, but the method behind it has remained mysterious.

Solar Orbiter was launched in February, 2020, and flies an elliptical orbit across the Sun that sees it periodically pass closer to the Sun that the planet Mercury, allowing for close up studies of solar phenomena.

Unlike the Earth, which has a single magnetic field with two poles, the Sun comprises of multitude of magnetic fields. Because the Sun consists largely of plasma, gas so hot the positively charged protons and negatively charged electrons have been separated, those magnetic fields provides paths through which the Sun’s plasma can travel.

Closed magnetic fields leave the Sun’s surface and return, like magnetic arches, and any plasma flowing along them moves slowly and returns to the Sun. Open magnetic fields, like people who snap lose of the Sun during a coronal mass ejection, extend out into the interplanetary magnetic field, and may allow plasma to flee into space, and speed up it along the best way.

Charged particles accelerated along such open magnetic field lines can sometimes strike Earth, resulting in geomagnetic storms, stunning auroras and even radio communications disruptions.

In some theories of how solar magnetic switchbacks happen, open and closed magnetic fields interact, making a burst of energy that ends the closed magnetic field, making it propagate backwards temporarily, before it snaps back like a whip to its original orientation.

An ESA diagram explaining how a solar magnetic switchback may form

(ESA)

“The primary image from Metis that Daniele showed suggested to me almost immediately the cartoons that we had drawn in developing the mathematical model for a switchback,” Gary Zank, Director of Center for Space Plasma and Aeronomic Research on the University of Alabama, Huntsville, said in a press release. Dr Zank was the originator of the S-shaped kink theory of switchback formation and is a co-author of the study.

This observational confirmation of the mathematical theory of magnetic switchback formation could help scientists higher understand the solar wind and solar storms, but more research is required to attach switchbacks with their origins on the surface of the Sun. Specifically, scientists need spacecraft like Solar Orbiter, or Nasa’s Parker Solar probe, to fly through the switchback and take more measurements.

That chance is coming soon: the Solar Orbiter spacecraft will fly its next close pass of the sun on 13 October.

“This is precisely the form of result we were hoping for with Solar Orbiter,” Daniel Müller, ESA Project Scientist for Solar Orbiter, said in a press release. “This was Solar Orbiter’s very first close pass to the Sun, so we expect many more exciting results to return.”

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