NASA instruments captured the moment when part of the sun appeared to break away from the giant star and was swept up in a polar vortex. But according to the scientist who drew attention to it, it’s not as bad as it sounds.
Tamitha Skov, a space weather physicist and research scientist at The Aerospace Corporation in Southern California, went viral in the news earlier this month when she shared images of the event.
“Talk about a Polar Vortex!” she tweeted. “Material from the northern hemisphere has broken away directly from the main filament and is now spreading in a giant polar vortex around the north pole of our Star.”
Basically, a large piece of plasma broke off from the surface of the sun. And the white vortex that sweeps up there is not the same as a polar vortex that we might have here on Earth.
According to the National Weather Service, a polar vortex on our planet is a large system of cold, low-pressure air that strengthens in the winter. On Earth, it occurs “fairly regularly” and is known to send arctic weather surges to nearby areas.
But Sara Housseal, senior duty officer for space weather operations at the US Air Force’s Space Weather Operations Center, says it’s an event on the sun “much less understood or known.”
“While it may (or may not) always be present, it’s not always seen,” she said, “so the filament caught in it allowed us to physically see it and study it .”
The break in question occurred around midday on February 2nd and is visible on the upper left of the sun. In a video later posted to her Patreon account, Skov further explained the significance of the event.
“Some of that material starts to break away from the main structure and starts to fight with the white wind,” she said. “And as that stuff starts to get swept up there, you can see that it takes about 8 times that stuff to completely go around the pole at about 60 degrees.”
According to his preliminary calculations, Skov said the white wind was moving “very fast” – about 60 miles per second.
Solar physicist Scott McIntosh, deputy director of the National Center for Atmospheric Research, told Space.com that plasma breaks of the sun’s surface like this have occurred at 55 degrees solar latitude in previous solar cycles, which lasted 11 years.
Solar prominences are common, seen as bright patches of plasma emerging from the sun’s surface and bending back to anchor it. According to the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research, these events are “huge” and can stretch out thousands of miles. They can last for “several days or up to several months.”
However, McIntosh said he had never seen a prominence and a vortex interact like this before.
“When every solar cycle, it forms at the 55-degree latitude and begins to march up to the solar poles,” he said. “It’s very strange. There’s a big ‘why’ question around it. Why does it only go towards the pole once and then it goes away and then magically comes back three or four years later in the same region?”
The discovery could have “exciting” implications for understanding the solar system, Skov said, as the gas giant planets Saturn and Jupiter are also known for their large, bright winds.
“It seems our sun has more in common with these gas giants than you might think,” she said. “…So, while the sun still holds some of its mysteries, today, we may be just one step closer.”
Skov told Melbourne’s ABC Radio that it was a “very rare observation” of the sun’s surface going forward.
“This material allowed us to really see the winds and how fast things were moving,” she said. “…We need to start learning more about how this great engine of magnetic activity – what we call the magnetic dynamo – how it works, because that’s actually what generates space weather.”
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