No, a piece of sun is not simply “broken off”
Perhaps in the last week or so you’ve seen stories with headlines like “Part of the Sun Breaks Free and Forms Strange Vortex That Baffles Scientists” or “Incredible Moment Piece of Sun BREAKS Scientists Confused” or even “NASA Caught a piece of sun that breaks off, baffling the scientists.”
It all started with a harmless, informative tweet.
Tamitha Skov, a space weather forecaster and science communicator, tweeted her excitement that “material from a northern prominence just snapped off the main thread.”
“Implications for understanding the Sun’s atmospheric dynamics above 55° here cannot be overstated!”
But are scientists Strictly speaking puzzled?
Tamitha Skov laughs.
“No,” she said.
Instead, they are intrigued.
“The thing is, first of all, scientists should be allowed to be curious and excited about things that they don’t fully understand. What else is the job of a scientist?”
Heliophysics — the study of the Sun — is a fairly young branch of astronomy, Skov notes, which is why scientists get excited when something else happens on our nearest star.
The eight-hour event began with a solar lobe (also known as a solar filament) beginning to rise near the Sun’s north pole, which is seen at the top of satellite imagery. Prominences are made of plasma, a hot gas of electrically charged hydrogen and helium. They are common on the Sun, but it was the position of this specimen – at the Sun’s north pole – that was of particular interest to heliophysicists.
“What happened in the end was what started out as a perfectly normal, average, so-called polar crown filament. It became kind of a big tower, like a big volcano, which started to rise near the North Pole,” explained Skov.
The prominence was near the tip of the North Pole, above the 60th parallel, where it was caught by an electromagnetic wind.
“And it started tearing and pulling at some of the material in that prominence,” Skov said.
“So it kind of went up in the air like a hot air balloon. And as it cooled, instead of just cooling and falling or maybe breaking out like a normal polar crown filament, part of it was ripped away in that wind. And as it was shredded in that wind, we had to watch it cool, swirling in a whirlpool. And that is a very rare, if not fundamentally new, observation.”
understand the sun
The sun is a complicated animal. It is constantly active and highly magnetic. Unlike the earth, different parts rotate at different speeds. It also goes through an 11-year cycle of decreasing and increasing activity called solar minima and solar maxima, respectively (we are at the beginning of a solar maximum, part of solar cycle 25).
“Polar magnetic fields vary in different ways,” said Liz Jensen, associate research scientist at the Planetary Institute. “One of the things that’s happening is that with the solar cycle… the magnetic field is flipped.”
“So the likelihood of having a celebrity increases the closer you get to solar maximum.”
Skov explains that areas of uncharged particles, which are considered neutral, are twisted by the magnetic fields and then migrate towards the poles.
And this could explain what scientists have observed: a possible indication that polarities may be starting to reverse. That’s what made it so exciting for her; Even as our knowledge of the Sun expands – with more and more satellites dedicated to studying it – it still manages to surprise heliophysicists.
So the scientists were not stunned as they already had some knowledge about this type of activity. But they were thrilled to be able to witness it.
“It’s like a lot of problems in nature,” Jensen said. “When you understand one aspect of it better, you realize how challenging it is in other areas. And so you collect a measurement that answers one of your questions and raises 10 others.”
Beyond the headlines
Skov says she was surprised by what part of her tweet went viral.
“I’m actually training meteorologists to understand… how space is being incorporated into our pop culture. And the sad thing is that it’s always integrated in the wrong way. It’s always going to be this phenomenally scary and fundamentally hostile universe of “anything that could break,” she said.
While discussing it in her class, she said they thought mentioning the polar vortex would get the most attention, especially since one had descended over North America. But she was wrong.
“Lo and behold, in the end it wasn’t a polar vortex that went viral. I said some of the celebrity material was detached from the main structure,” she said. “It’s like none of us saw this coming — not even me — and I’ve been doing this for a decade.”
When asked if she regrets sending the tweet as it caused misunderstandings, Skov says she doesn’t.
“It’s about turning that into a teachable moment, lessons learned and a way that people can actually come back and realize that the headlines just blow things out of proportion.”