'New kind' of explosion on Sun's surface charged by its magnetic field discovered by NASA's Parker probe

The Sun's magnetic field lines are in constant flux — snapping and realigning in an explosive, natural process researchers still don't understand all too well.

Astronomers have spotted the first conclusive evidence of a "new kind" of magnetic explosion on the sun's surface — unlike anything they've ever seen before. This comes roughly 15 years after the phenomenon was first theorised by physicists. With the new discovery, astronomers now have the first direct observation of this behaviour, which researchers have dubbed 'forced reconnection'.

The data confirming the explosions was provided by the Solar Dynamics Observatory, a suite of instruments on NASA's Parker Probe. Researchers were witness to an eruption on the surface of the sun, where a hot loop of plasma whipping out of the sun's corona (upper atmosphere) was caught in action and given a keen, closer look. This erupted material, known as a "prominence", then fell right back into the sun. During its return to the surface, the prominence also collides with the sun's magnetic field lines, which sets off a never-before-seen kind of explosion (created by magnetism).

Parker's closest ever approach to the sun has shown us the origin of solar wind. Image: NASA

Parker's closest-ever approach to the sun has shown us the origin of solar wind. Image: NASA

The Sun's magnetic field lines are in a constant state of flux — snapping and realigning in explosive natural processes that researchers still don't understand all too well. Based on observations made in the past, of this behavior, the phenomenon has been coined "magnetic reconnection". Yet, the new discovery is the first time astronomers have irrefutably seen such a reconnection sparked by an eruption at the corona.

Findings like these go a long way in understanding the Sun's behavior, which is growing increasingly important as commercial space travel becomes a real possibility. The space race is at the advent of commercial spaceflight and plans to colonise other planets and distant moons in our solar system are all but mapped out.

Sunspots appear like dark markings on the surface of the sun. Image: NASA

Sunspots appear like dark markings on the surface of the sun. Image: NASA

There's also an immense amount of interest in understanding what makes the Sun tick, and the many ways it influences space weather (a collection of physical processes that start at the Sun, ultimately affecting living things and technology on Earth as well as far-and-wide in our solar system.) One of the longest and most fascinating mysteries in the field of astrophysicists is the sun's atmosphere (specifically, the corona), which is millions of degrees hotter than the sun itself, for reasons that scientists don't fully understand.

The Parker probe was designed by NASA to make several plunges into the Sun's corona, coming as close as 6.16 million kilometers of its surface over the course of its seven-year-long mission. The probe is protected by an ultra-powerful heat shield that can endure unprecedented levels of heat, and radiation 500 times that experienced on Earth. The car-sized probe and the Parker mission could give scientists an unprecedented opportunity to study the corona, solar wind, and geomagnetic storms, which risk wreaking chaos on Earth with their ability to knock out power grids far and wide in milliseconds.

The study's findings were published this week in the Astrophysical Journal.

Also read: Why is the Sun’s atmosphere hotter than the surface? Parker probe's data likely to find out

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