The sun as seen by NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory in extreme ultraviolet light -- multimillion degree plasma in the lower corona glows bright in the 193A wavelength SDO filter.
Image credit: NASA/SDO/AIA Consortium
5 Ways the Solar Wind Will Blow You Away
We all know the sun is a powerful thing. It's the center of our solar system, keeping all the planets in orbit, and it sustains life here on Earth. But the sun affects objects in our solar system in many more ways. One not-so-obvious way is through the solar wind. The solar wind is a continuous flow of charged particles from the sun that are blasted through interplanetary space. Here are five ways the solar wind affects some celestial bodies in our solar system.
WATCH VIDEO: SDO Captures Eruptions on Sun
Image credit: Boston University
Planets Shake Their Tail Feathers
Thanks to the solar wind, and solar radiation, Mercury can be seen dragging along a comet-esque tail. Solar radiation causes sodium atoms to be removed from Mercury's surface. The solar wind then whips them up and sends them into a tail, trailing the planet. The sun has had a similar effect on Mars.
Image credit: ESA
Venus' Bleeding Atmosphere Venus' atmosphere is bleeding away thanks to the solar wind. Earth's atmosphere is held in place by a magnetic field. Unfortunately for Venus, it doesn’t have the luxury of a magnetic field, and its atmosphere is slowly being blown away into space.
Image: The Japanese "Interplanetary Kite-craf
Interplanetary Windsurfing The solar wind and solar radiation generate pressure, and thus can propel objects through space like wind on Earth propels a sailboat across water. So if one were to build a large, strong, yet lightweight sail, this pressure from the sun could actually be harnessed to navigate space. And you'd be able to fly on a low budget because you wouldn't use fuel. In May 2010, Japan launched a solar sail prototype intended to coast through space by harnessing solar radiation pressure.
Image credit: NASA/Miloslav Druckmuller (Brno
Wiggling Comets As comets travel the cosmos, their tails can be seen wiggling. They don't do this on their own accord however, or even because they're happy. Changes in the speed of the solar wind causes the comet tails to change positions, giving them a "wiggling" effect.
Image credit: NASA/SDO
Messing with Earth The solar wind isn't just a breeze blowing about in space. Carried within it are super-fast energy streams. This energy creates intense magnetic fields, which impact the outskirts of our atmosphere. It can even be so rude as to knock out our communications networks and disrupt our satellites. Related Discovery News content: Incoming! The Sun Unleashes CME at Earth Impact! Coronal Mass Ejection Hits Earth Is the Sun Emitting a Mystery Particle? Why Should YOU Care About the Sun? The Sun's Coronal Rain Puzzle Solved
Solar maximum may be starting to wane, but the sun has no intention on slipping into the stellar doldrums quietly. At 7:50 p.m. EST on Monday (00:50 UTC, Feb. 25), a sunspot emerging from the southeastern limb of our nearest star unleashed its magnetic fury, exploding with an X5-class flare.
X-class solar flares are the most powerful classification of flare and, if pointing toward Earth, can cause radiation storms and impact our planet’s upper atmosphere, interfering with satellites and global communications. In this case, however, the flare erupted perpendicular to the direction of Earth, so its impact will be minimal. But it did give space observatories quite a fireworks display.
In the sequence of images above from NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory, the fairly quiescent sun suddenly erupts with a flash, leaving a magnetic tangle in its wake. The loops of magnetism and superheated plasma extend from the solar surface reaching high into the multimillion degree solar atmosphere (known as the corona). It is this region where space weather is spawned, generating rapid flows of charged particles (known as the solar wind), crackling with solar flares and sometimes blasting coronal mass ejections (CMEs) into interplanetary space.
Monday’s flare is the most powerful flare of 2014 and was generated by active region (AR) 1990. Interestingly, the same active region has been responsible for considerable activity during previous rotations across the surface of the sun and this third time, as noted by Tony Phillips at Spaceweather.com, is showing promise for an uptick in flaring activity.
Although this latest X-class flare is impressive, it still occurred during a solar cycle that has been very lackluster. Solar cycles occur approximately every 11 years and reach a peak in magnetic activity during solar maximum. The amount of activity is measured by the number of sunspots that can be observed on the solar disk. Sun spots are caused by magnetic field lines erupting through the solar photosphere (the solar ‘surface’) — therefore, the greater the magnetic activity, the higher the number of sunspots.
Recent activity on the sun has prompted space weather forecasters to predict that the sun may see an increase in activity through 2014, creating a “double peak” solar maximum. But even if this does happen, the current cycle (Solar Cycle 24) is the weakest humanity has observed since Solar Cycle 14, which had a maximum sunspot count of 64.2 in February 1906. The sunspot maximum (so far) occurred last summer, hitting a peak of 67.
The underlying reasons behind the variability in activity of our sun are still not fully understood, proving that even our nearest star can be a mystery.