The European Space Agency’s Solar Orbiter has captured a stunning phenomenon taking place across the surface of the Sun. It may look like a snake slithering from one side of the Sun to the other, but it's actually a tube of cooler atmospheric gases shooting through the Sun's magnetic field – and it may have been the herald for a much more powerful solar event.
The probe photographed the event in the extreme ultraviolet, seeing the intense energetic processes that take place in the solar atmosphere. The time-lapse is made of images taken over the course of three hours and the team estimates that the "snake" moved at a speed of 170 kilometers (106 miles) per second.
Did you ssssssssee it?
All the gas in the atmosphere of the Sun is plasma, because it is over a million degrees, so electrons are ripped from their atoms. But there are hotter features and cooler features, like the snake. The cool plasma followed a solar filament, an arc of plasma that can form across the surface of the Sun connecting two distant parts of the Sun.
“You're getting plasma flowing from one side to the other but the magnetic field is really twisted. So you're getting this change in direction because we're looking down on a twisted structure,” David Long, who is heading up the investigation into the phenomenon, said in a statement.
The point of origin of the snake and the filament then experience a major eruption. These are known as coronal mass ejections and when they occur a huge amount of plasma is thrown into space. If these hit the Earth, they can cause geomagnetic storms.
The location of the snake, filament, and coronal mass ejection being one and the same is too much of a coincidence, so the team is investigating how the three are related. Solar Orbiter’s Energetic Particle Detector was active during the coronal mass ejection and recorded the most intense solar energetic particles event ever recorded by the instrument so far.
As luck would have it, NASA’s Parker Solar Probe was also swept over by the eruption providing an ‘upstream’ view of the event as it orbits closer to the Sun, meaning it could measure the eruption too. The two spacecraft have fantastic synergy and NASA is an active collaborator in Solar Orbiter, so it will be interesting to see the results of the two solar crafts combined.