While NASA is getting ready to launch its famous Parker Solar Probe and send it through the sun’s atmosphere (also known as the solar corona) to learn as much as possible about this mysterious place, astronomers are doing their own investigations to understand its nature.
A new study into the incandescent atmosphere that surrounds the sun reports a major breakthrough that ended up unveiling exciting details about its make-up.
Led by a scientist from the Southwest Research Institute (SwRI) in Texas, the study unveils high-fidelity images of the solar corona, which capture the flow of the solar wind and reveal tiny structures in the sun’s atmosphere.
As the Inquisitr previously reported, the solar wind represents the outflow of highly charged particles that exude from the sun and travel all across the solar system.
These particles originate in the solar corona and affect everything in their path, notes Space.com. For instance, as they reach our planet, they pummel our atmosphere with radiation and cause magnetic interference.
Now, for the first time ever, a team of scientists “discovered never-before-detected, fine-grained structures in the sun’s outer atmosphere,” SwRI announced earlier this week.
This revelation brought to light exciting new details about the solar corona and showed that the solar wind actually has a “turbulent” flow.
“Previous images showed the outer corona as a smooth structure, but in deep space, the solar wind is turbulent and gusty,” said lead study author Craig DeForest, a solar physicist at SwRI.
“How did it get that way? Did it leave the sun smooth, and become turbulent as it crossed the solar system, or are the gusts telling us about the sun itself?” the scientist pondered in a statement.
The team has finally come up with the answer after investigating data from NASA’s STEREO spacecraft. Short for Solar and Terrestrial Relations Observatory, the space probe has been circling the sun since 2006, orbiting it between Earth and Venus.
Equipped with a coronagraph, an instrument that captures data on the solar corona by blocking out the sun with an occulting disk, the spacecraft photographs the sun’s atmosphere, unraveling what goes on inside it.
According to NASA, the team ran a special, “deep-field” data gathering campaign in 2014, which lasted for three days and yielded a wealth of exposures of the solar corona.
These photos were then processed with the help of advanced algorithms and data-cleaning techniques and eventually pieced together in a particular way, which followed the flow of the solar wind rather than the background from where the particles originated.
Space.com compared the procedure with sequencing images of a drifting log by following it along the current to get a detailed view of what it looks like, rather than where it goes to.
The findings revealed that the solar corona has “a ‘woodgrain’ appearance,” the authors wrote in their paper, published this week in The Astrophysical Journal.
“Using new techniques to improve image fidelity, we realized that the corona is not smooth, but structured and dynamic,” explained DeForest. “Every structure that we thought we understood turns out to be made of smaller ones, and to be more dynamic than we thought.”
These tiny structures impact the flow of the solar wind, causing it to disperse in a turbulent manner as it travels farther away from the sun.