A snake that appears to be sneaking around the Sun has been captured in a new video by a near-solar observatory.
However, the “snake” observed by the European Space Agency’s Solar Orbiter is not a true squamate star but a new solar event that may be associated with a large outburst from the unstable Sun.
The Orbiter observed the moving image on 5 September when it moved to closest approach – known as perihelion – scheduled for 12 October, the closest Solar Orbiter has yet been. (The conference video was amazing, by the way.)
As the Solar Orbiter approached, it was a picture of a streak extending a long way across the Sun. Solar scientists say this is a cold tube of plasma in the hot plasma circulating in the Sun’s atmosphere, bound by the Sun’s magnetic field.
The video shows the plasma moving up the Sun from one side to the other, following the solar energy filament.
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“You’re getting the plasma moving from one side to the other, but the magnetic field is really twisted. So you’re getting this change because we’re looking at the bottom of a twisted system,” explains astronomer David Long of University College. London in the UK.
Solar magnets are complex, and trying to understand them and their behavior is a constant Herculean experiment.
But the sun’s atmosphere contains plasma made up of small particles called charged particles that are easily trapped by magnetic forces.
This is why fusion generators such as tokamaks rely on magnets to trap the plasma – but it also means that if you can follow the contents of the plasma, you can get a better idea of what the magnets are doing.
The solar snake helps scientists see the magnetic field moving, but it’s what it’s moving away from that makes it so fascinating.
As soon as the filament made its way across the Sun, it initially exploded and released a plasma blast into the atmosphere.
These eruptions are often associated with sunspots, regions of magnetic fields on the Sun. These magnetic fields bend, jump, and recombine, producing coronal mass ejections and sometimes solar flares.
The snake was probably connected in some way one of the strongest detected by the Solar Orbiter since its launch in February 2020, possibly as a precursor to the eruption.
Solar Orbiter isn’t alone up there, either; NASA’s Parker Solar Probe was directly in the line of fire of the coronal mass ejection. It is not damaged – it is designed to withstand the heat of the sun, and test it to start, so we are all waiting with interest to see what was found in the plasma released by such a large explosion.
Meanwhile, the Solar Orbiter’s next perihelion is scheduled for April next year. Sunspot events on the Sun are on the rise, leading to an 11-year increase, so we’re excited to see what this research shows us next.