NASA spacecraft travels through solar winds to find source of potential ‘internet apocalypse’

BERKELEY, Calif. — NASA’s Parker Solar Probe (PSP) has ventured through solar winds for the first time in a proactive effort to prevent a potential “internet apocalypse” in our future. The spacecraft maneuvered close to the solar wind’s origin, near the surface of the Sun, where a continuous stream of charged particles originates from the outermost atmosphere known as the corona.

Withstanding intense heat and radiation, the Parker probe is gathering new insights into the functioning of our star. Previous studies have already revealed how intense solar storms could one day cause planet-wide blackouts by interfering with Earth’s electronic signals.

“Winds carry lots of information from the Sun to Earth, so understanding the mechanism behind the Sun’s wind is important for practical reasons on Earth,” says study co-leader James Drake of the University of Maryland-College Park. “That’s going to affect our ability to understand how the Sun releases energy and drives geomagnetic storms, which are a threat to our communication networks.”

Scientists warn of a possible solar strike in the next decade that could trigger this internet apocalypse. The resulting radiation could knock out satellites and power lines, leaving people offline for months or even years.

The Parker probe has detected solar wind with unprecedented detail, revealing information that typically dissipates as the wind exits the corona in a hail of photons and electrons. The team has likened this observation to “seeing jets of water emanating from a showerhead through the blast of water hitting you in the face.”

The phenomena observed match “supergranulation flows” within coronal holes from where magnetic fields emerge. This suggests that these regions could be the origin of the “fast” solar wind. During the Sun’s quiet periods, these holes usually occur at the poles, preventing the wind from hitting Earth. However, every 11 years, when the Sun’s magnetic field flips, the holes appear all over the surface, generating bursts of solar wind aimed directly at us.

A flattened map of the Sun’s entire surface
A flattened map of the sun’s entire surface, or corona, imaged in extreme ultraviolet wavelengths by the NASA Solar Dynamics Observatory (SDO) satellite. The two dark regions below the middle of the image are the coronal holes sampled by the Parker Solar Probe. Within these coronal holes, flows in the solar atmosphere create intense, complex magnetic fields that annihilate and produce the pressure and energy to overcome solar gravity and send high-energy particles outward — the fast solar wind. The funnels of intense magnetic field where the fast solar wind actually originates — large convection cells called supergranulations — are not visible inside the coronal holes. (Image courtesy of NASA)

The study, published in the journal Nature, will aid in predicting solar storms which not only generate beautiful auroras on Earth, but can also wreak havoc with satellites and the electrical grid. The research suggests that coronal holes act similarly to showerheads, with evenly spaced jets emerging from bright spots where magnetic field lines funnel in and out of the sun’s surface.

When oppositely directed fields pass in these funnels, which can be 18,000 miles across, they often break and reconnect — slinging charged particles out of the Sun.

“The photosphere is covered by convection cells, like in a boiling pot of water, and the larger scale convection flow is called supergranulation,” says study leader Stuart D. Bale, a professor of physics at UC Berkeley, in a university release.

“Where these supergranulation cells meet and go downward, they drag the magnetic field in their path into this downward kind of funnel. The magnetic field becomes very intensified there because it’s just jammed. It’s kind of a scoop of magnetic field going down into a drain. And the spatial separation of those little drains, those funnels, is what we’re seeing now with solar probe data.”

"Wall" of plasma seen stretching above the Sun's surface.
“Wall” of plasma seen stretching above the Sun’s surface. (Credit: Eduardo Schaberger Poupeau / SWNS)

Parker’s scanners detected extremely high-energy particles moving up to 100 times faster than the solar wind. The researchers deduced that this wind could only be created by a process known as magnetic reconnection. Launched five years ago, Parker is designed to make repeated, ever-closer passes of the Sun, traveling at colossal speeds of over 320,000 mph. Shielded by a thick heat shield, the spacecraft captures measurements of the solar environment with an array of instruments.

NASA’s primary goal was to determine the origin of the high-energy particles that constitute the solar wind – whether they’re a product of magnetic reconnection or acceleration by plasma or Alfven waves.

“The big conclusion is that it’s magnetic reconnection within these funnel structures that’s providing the energy source of the fast solar wind,” Bale continues. “It doesn’t just come from everywhere in a coronal hole, it’s substructured within coronal holes to these supergranulation cells. It comes from these little bundles of magnetic energy that are associated with the convection flows. Our results, we think, are strong evidence that it’s reconnection that’s doing that.”

The funnel structures likely correspond to the bright jetlets visible from Earth within coronal holes, as recently reported by the Parker project. As the probe continues to venture deeper into the corona, it is expected to reach within four million miles of the photosphere by 2025, providing invaluable data.

Parker’s insights, along with those from other solar observatories, have direct implications for life on Earth. Scientific efforts to forecast these solar “storms” are ongoing, and the Parker Solar Probe promises to provide new and valuable information to assist in this endeavor. As the probe continues its deep-space sojourns into the Sun’s corona, it will yield even more information, furthering our understanding of these solar phenomena and helping us to better predict and protect against the potential effects of such space weather events on our planet.

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South West News Service writer Mark Waghorn contributed to this report.

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