A serpent appearing to meander across the surface of the Sun has been captured in new video by an observatory in near solar orbit.
The orbiter observed the moving structure on September 5 as it moved for its close approach – called perihelion – scheduled for October 12, the closest solar orbiter had yet been. (The video of this meeting was just amazingBesides.)
As Solar Orbiter approached, he imagined an undulating line traveling a long way across the Sun. Solar scientists say it is a tube of cooler plasma in the surrounding hot plasma of the solar atmosphere, bound by solar magnetic fields.
The video shows plasma meandering across the Sun from side to side, following a filament of the Sun’s magnetic field.
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“You get plasma flowing from side to side, but the magnetic field is really twisted. So you get this change in direction because we’re looking down at a twisted structure,” says astronomer David Long from University College London in the UK.
Solar magnetic fields are complicated, and trying to understand them and their behavior is an ongoing Herculean effort.
But the solar atmosphere is made up of plasma made up of charged particles easily confined by magnetic fields.
This is why fusion generators such as tokamaks rely on magnetic fields for plasma confinement – but that also means that if you can follow the structures in the plasma, you can get a pretty good idea of what the magnetic fields are doing.
The sun snake lets scientists see the magnetic field moving, but it’s what it’s moving away from that makes it even more intriguing.
Shortly after the filament made its way through the Sun, its starting point erupted in a coronal mass ejection, sending plasma into space.
These flares are usually associated with sunspots, regions of magnetic field lines concentrated on the Sun. These magnetic field lines get tangled, break and reconnect, producing coronal mass ejections and sometimes solar flares.
It is possible that the snake was somehow connected to one of the strongest detected by Solar Orbiter since its launch in February 2020, possibly as a precursor to the flare.
Solar Orbiter isn’t alone up there either; NASA’s Parker Solar Probe was directly in the line of fire from the coronal mass ejection. He’s unscathed – he was designed to withstand solar tantrums and measure them to boot, so we’re all eagerly waiting to see what he found in the plasma ejected by such a monumental flare.
Meanwhile, Solar Orbiter’s next perihelion is to take place at April next year. The Sun’s sunspot activity continues to increase, leading to the peak of its 11 year duty cycleso we’re excited to see what the little probe shows us next.