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credit:SAO/NASA/JAXA/NAOJ

That's how fast solar wind can travel and this month, scientists have shed light on why that is. At least part of the reason is Alfven waves, magnetic waves named for the Swedish Nobel Prize winner who proposed their existence 60 years ago.

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A Japanese spacecraft known as Hinode (pronounced hin-OH-day) was able to focus its optical telescope on a 125-mile wide eruption from the sun's surface. It captured images like the one above, which shows Alfven waves going back and forth in the sun's chromosphere, a region between its surface and its corona or atmosphere.

The spacecraft, launched in 2006, is designed to help us understand the sun's basic physics and how it generates its life-sustaining heat and energy. The images show that the sun's magnetic field is constantly changing shape, generating Alfven waves that accelerate solar winds and propel them into space, the scientists say.

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Solar wind is no small stuff. It's made up of electrically charged gases that generate sunspots, flares and storms called coronal mass ejections that are responsible for the shimmering, otherworldly beauty of the aurora borealis, or northern lights.

It also causes geomagnetic storms, including one in 1989 that plunged 6 million people into darkness in Quebec and another in 2005 that prompted astronauts aboard the International Space Station to take cover from approaching blasts of solar radiation in the better-shielded Russian Zvezda service module.

Hinode is not the only spacecraft studying the sun. Earlier this year, scientists with NASA's STEREO mission, operated from a control center at the Johns Hopkins University's Applied Physics Lab near Laurel, sent back the first-ever views of debris from a coronal mass ejection as it raced across the gulf between the sun and Earth.

There's more about Hinode here

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