Scientists may have figured out when and how high-energy particles that bombard Earth and other objects erupt from violent environments like that atmosphere of the sun.
These high-energy particles represent a danger for the sensitive satellite technology and for astronauts and can even affect airplanes flying over the North Pole. Although researchers have been studying these particles for decades, it has been difficult to see a clear pattern for when flares can occur, and thus predict when they might occur.
In new research, based on simulations created with supercomputers, scientists identified the plasma in the Sun‘s outer atmosphere as the source of these high-energy particles.
“This exciting new research will allow us to better predict the origin of solar energetic particles and improve prediction models space weather events, a primary goal of NASA and other space agencies and governments around the world,” said Luca Comisso, a researcher at Columbia University and co-author of the study, in a expression.
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The Sun’s outer atmosphere, the corona, is made up of plasma, meaning the violent conditions have stripped the atoms of their electrons. Solar scientists believe that in this highly turbulent sea of stripped atoms (ions) high-energy particles are created electrons.
However, this was difficult to study because plasma moves erratically and unpredictably, leaving it a mystery as to how and when high-energy particles are produced.
Comisso and Lorenzo Sironi, also from Columbia, developed simulations using supercomputers from NASA, Columbia and the National Energy Research Scientific Computing Center that modeled the exact movement of electrons and ions in the solar plasma. This created a good proxy for the corona, which provided the most comprehensive data yet on when and how high-energy particles form in the region.
The simulations showed that magnetic fields in the corona can accelerate electrons and ions nearly 100 times Speed of Lightto launch them into space.
The research helps solve a question scientists have pondered since 1949, when Enrico Fermi first began studying magnetic fields in space as a source of high-energy particles observed in bombardments earth atmosphere. Fermi’s work led physicists to think that the Sun’s plasma could be behind many of these particles while others are being flung to Earth from outer space. However, proving this hypothesis has been a challenge.
While the team’s findings were based on a simulation, NASA’s are Parker solar probe could help further validate the research, Comisso said.
The Parker Solar Probe has been observing our star since the spacecraft was launched in 2018. Part of the mission is to study the Sun’s turbulent outer atmosphere. This would allow the Parker Solar Probe to directly observe the distribution of high-energy particles generated in the corona.
The results of the new work also have implications beyond the borders solar system. All stars are composed primarily of plasma, which means that the vast majority of matter 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 high-energy particles seen not only around the Sun and other stars, but also around other cosmic objects, such as neutron stars and black holes.
That opens the door for further simulations that could examine how far away StarsBlack holes and neutron stars create their own high-energy particles.
“Our results focus on the Sun, but 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,” Comisso said. “We’ve only scratched the surface of what supercomputer simulations can tell us about how these particles are born across the universe.”
The team’s research was published on September 13 The Letters of the Astrophysical Journal.
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