Scientists may have discovered when and how high-energy particles that bombard Earth and other objects emerge from violent environments such as the sunshine atmosphere.
These high-energy particles pose a risk to delicate satellite technology and astronauts, and can even affect planes flying over the North Pole. Although researchers have been studying these particles for decades, it has been difficult to clearly determine when flare-ups may appear and therefore predict when they might occur.
In new research, based on simulations created with supercomputers, scientists have identified plasma in the Sunthe outer atmosphere of 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 of space weather events, a key focus of NASA and other space agencies and governments around the world,” said Luca Comisso, a Columbia University researcher and co-author of the study, in a statement.
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The sun’s outer atmosphere, the corona, is made of plasma, which means the violent conditions have stripped atoms of their electrons. Solar scientists believe that high-energy particles are generated in this very turbulent sea of stripped atoms (ions) and electrons.
It’s been difficult to study, however, because plasma moves erratically and unpredictably, so it’s a mystery as to how and when the high-energy particles are generated.
Comisso and Lorenzo Sironi, also of Columbia, developed simulations using supercomputers from NASA, Columbia, and the National Energy Research Scientific Computing Center that modeled the exact motion of electrons and ions in solar plasma. This created a good indicator of the corona, providing the most comprehensive data yet on when and how high-energy particles form in the region.
Simulations demonstrated that magnetic fields in the corona can accelerate electrons and ions to near the speed of lightlaunching them into space.
The research helps answer a question posed by scientists since 1949, when Enrico Fermi began studying magnetic fields in space as a source of observed high-energy particles bombarding earth’s atmosphere. Fermi’s work has led physicists to suggest that the sun’s plasma may be behind many of these particles, with others bombarded on Earth from deep space. But proving this hypothesis has been difficult.
While the team’s findings were based on a simulation, NASA Parker Solar Probe could help further validate the research, Comisso said.
The Parker Solar Probe has been observing our star since the spacecraft launched in 2018. Part of the mission is to study the sun’s turbulent outer atmosphere. This means that the Parker Solar Probe could directly observe the distribution of high-energy particles generated in the corona.
The results of the new work also have implications beyond the solar system. All stars are composed primarily of plasma, which means that the vast majority of matter that 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 the high-energy particles observed not only around the sun and other stars, but also around other cosmic objects, such as neutron stars and black holes.
This opens the door to other simulations that could examine how far starsblack holes and neutron stars generate their own high-energy particles.
“Our results are focused on the sun, but can also be seen as a starting point to better understand 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 originated across the universe.”
The team’s research was published September 13 in Letters from the Astrophysical Journal.
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