Science

Scientists trace the path of high-energy particles to solar plasma

Scientists may have discovered when and how high-energy particles that bombard the Earth and other objects emerge from harsh environments such as the solar atmosphere.

These high-energy particles pose a risk to sensitive satellite technology and astronauts, and can even damage aircraft flying over the North Pole. While researchers have been studying these particles for decades, it has been difficult to get a clear picture of when flares might occur, and thus predict when they might occur.

In a new study based on supercomputer simulations, scientists have identified plasma in the Sun’s outer atmosphere as the source of these high-energy particles.

“This exciting new research will enable us to better predict the origin of solar energy particles and improve space weather forecasting models, a key goal of NASA and other space agencies and governments around the world,” said Luca Comiso, researcher at Columbia University. and co-author of the study, the statement said.

Related: The sun fired another flare and the photos are amazing

The Sun’s outer atmosphere, the corona, is made of plasma, meaning that the harsh conditions have stripped atoms of their electrons. Solar scientists believe that high-energy particles are generated in this highly turbulent sea of ​​stripped atoms (ions) and electrons.

However, this has been difficult to study because the plasma moves erratically and unpredictably, so it has been a mystery how and when the high-energy particles are generated.

Comiso and Lorenzo Sironi, also from Colombia, developed models using supercomputers from NASA, Colombia and the National Energy Research Computing Center that simulated the precise motion of electrons and ions in the solar plasma. This created a good indicator for the corona, providing the most comprehensive data on when and how high-energy particles are formed in the region.

Simulations have shown that magnetic fields in the corona can accelerate electrons and ions to nearly the speed of light, launching them into space.

The study helps address a question that scientists have been pondering since 1949, when Enrico Fermi first began investigating magnetic fields in space as the source of observed high-energy particles bombarding Earth’s atmosphere. Fermi’s work has led physicists to speculate that solar plasma could be behind many of these particles, while others are being blasted to Earth from deep space. But proving this hypothesis proved difficult.

Although the team’s results were based on simulations, NASA’s Parker Solar Probe could help further validate the study, Comiso said.

The Parker Solar Probe has been observing our star since the launch of the spacecraft in 2018. Part of the mission is to study the Sun’s turbulent outer atmosphere. This means that the Parker Solar Probe can directly observe the distribution of high-energy particles generated in the corona.

The results of the new work also have implications beyond the solar system. All stars are made up primarily of plasma, meaning that the vast majority of the matter that astronomers see is in this state of matter (which is not a gas, liquid, or solid).

A better understanding of how plasma accelerates particles could explain the appearance of high-energy particles not only around the Sun and other stars, but also around other cosmic objects such as neutron stars and black holes.

This opens the door to further simulations that could look at how distant stars, black holes and neutron stars generate their own high-energy particles.

“Our results are focused on the Sun, but they can also be seen as a starting point for a better understanding of how high-energy particles are produced in more distant stars and around black holes,” Comiso said. “We’ve only scratched the surface of what supercomputer simulations can tell us about how these particles are born in the universe.”

The team’s study was published Sept. 13 in The Astrophysical Journal Letters.

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