Massive filament swirls into a ‘polar vortex’ on the Sun, astounding scientists
New images from NASA have revealed a giant ribbon of plasma that appears to be swirling around the Sun’s north pole. This “solar polar vortex” is something new for solar scientists,
The polar vortex is not a rare phenomenon here on Earth. It has existed since the formation of the planet’s atmosphere and was first described by scientists in the mid-19th century. In the last decade, since the winter of 2013-2014, it has become something of a buzzword in media and weather forecasts.
This simulation shows the deep frost that fell over Canada and the United States in December 2013 and early January 2014. Photo credit: NASA’s Goddard Scientific Visualization Studio
Thanks to telescopes and spacecraft, we’ve also seen polar vortices on Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn. Even Saturn’s moon Titan appears to have one.
And now it seems we can add the sun to that list.
Images from NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory taken on February 2-3, 2023 appear to show a massive filament of solar plasma expanding into a swirling vortex around the Sun’s north pole.
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“To be honest, this is the first time I’ve seen something like this at the poles of the sun,” said solar physicist Dr. Scott McIntosh, associate director of the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) in Boulder, CO, in an email to MétéoMédia.
In the past, solar scientists have noticed a phenomenon called the “polar crown filament” that forms periodically in the same region of the Sun, about 55 degrees north or south latitude.
This “polar crown” formed around the Sun’s south polar region in June 1999. The filtered image is shaded blue to enhance the contrast between the dark filaments and the Sun’s surface. Photo credit: NASA
McIntosh described this, according to Space.com, as a “hedge in the solar plasma” that appears about every 11 years as the Sun goes through its cycle of increasing and decreasing solar activity. In these cases, it has formed into a series of small swirling vortices of plasma resembling tornadoes in appearance. However, the reason for the appearance of the Polar Crown filament is still a mystery.
“This was a beautiful illustration of the ringed polar crown filament, and the spin-like rotation around the sun really helped emphasize that,” McIntosh told MétéoMédia.
This close-up of the apparent solar polar vortex was taken by NASA SDO at a different wavelength (171 angstroms) and shows the faint nature of the plasma swirling at the pole. Photo credit: NASA
However, this new case appears to be special, as it is the first time we’ve seen plasma swirl completely around the pole.
Although the movement of the solar plasma is controlled just as much (or more than) by the temperature and pressure of the sun’s magnetic fields, this particular phenomenon still bore a close resemblance to the polar vortices we see in planetary atmospheres.
The space weather physicist Dr. Tamitha Skov shared the first glimpse of this solar polar vortex shortly after it appeared in images from SDO.
“Talk about polar vortices!” She wrote on twitter. “Material from a northern prominence has just separated from the main filament and is now circulating in a massive polar vortex around our star’s north pole. The implications for understanding the Sun’s atmospheric dynamics above 55° here cannot be overstated!”
dr Skov’s comments underscore not only the beauty of the phenomenon but also its scientific importance. Indeed, the behavior of this material and the speed at which it travels could provide solar scientists with new clues about how the Sun works, as well as the behavior of the Sun’s magnetic field and its 11-year reversal cycle.
“The polar regions appear to be very important to the Sun’s magnetic field machine!” McIntosh said. “The fact that the protuberance/filament marches towards the poles means that it is an important part of the reversal process – it basically marks the location of the neutral point between the magnetic polarities.”
Future views will change our perspective
Viewing this phenomenon from here on Earth has its limitations.
From the images provided by NASA SDO this is certainly the case looks how this plasma stream wraps around the pole. However, because the Sun is a huge sphere, it’s sometimes difficult to get a clear picture of the activity that’s happening near the poles. Without a better perspective, it’s difficult to say with 100 percent certainty that this actually happened.
However, future observations from the European Space Agency’s Solar Orbiter satellite will give us a much better perspective of the Sun’s poles. According to ESA, every time the Solar Orbiter approaches the planet Venus, it receives a small gravitational boost from the flyby to tilt its orbit. This tilt is projected to reach over 17 degrees by 2025, 24 degrees by 2027, 30 degrees by 2028, and then 33 degrees by 2029.
This chart shows how the angle of Solar Orbiter’s orbit relative to the Sun’s equator will change over the coming years. Image credit: ESA/ATG medialab/NASA Goddard Space Flight Center
Other spacecraft, such as the Galileo and Cassini orbiters, have used this technique to image different parts of Jupiter and Saturn, respectively. Solar Orbiter will be the first to do this for the Sun, and the results will give us much better views of our star’s north and south polar regions, giving us a much better perspective on these phenomena.