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Measuring Solar Eruptions with a Rare Alignment – Sky & Telescope

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Artist’s impression of the Ulysses spacecraft
Artist’s impression of the Ulysses spacecraft on its large orbit across the Solar.
European House Company / David Hardy

In March of 1998, a mass of plasma erupted from the Solar. Because it sped out into interplanetary area, two spacecraft have been completely located to measure this dramatic cloud. Now, greater than 20 years later, we’re nonetheless benefitting from their fortuitous alignment.

Interplanetary Journeys

Image of a coronal mass ejection
A coronal mass ejection caught within the act by Photo voltaic Dynamics Observatory.

Coronal mass ejections (CMEs), violent releases of plasma and magnetic fields from the Solar’s environment, are on no account uncommon! When the Solar is at its most energetic, a number of CMEs can happen every day — and a few of these ejections are so energetic that they journey nice distances by our photo voltaic system, carrying embedded clouds wrapped in helical magnetic fields.

However what occurs to those magnetic clouds as they journey by interplanetary area? Do they develop, unperturbed, as they journey? Or do they work together with different magnetic photo voltaic phenomena — like extra CMEs, or the photo voltaic wind — and alter their shapes or behaviors?

A Fortuitous Alignment

The elliptical trajectory of the Ulysses spacecraft
The Ulysses spacecraft orbits on an elliptical trajectory out of the airplane of the ecliptic, so its near-perfect alignment with Wind on the time of the CME was fortunate!

These questions are difficult to reply as a result of problem of inspecting CMEs in interplanetary area. To achieve a greater understanding of CME evolution, we want repeated in situ measurements of the identical propagating magnetic cloud — first when it’s near the Solar, and once more when it’s traveled farther out into the photo voltaic system.

Whereas quite a lot of previous and present spacecraft have the power to measure the properties of the photo voltaic wind and magnetic fields round them, the overwhelming majority of those spacecraft orbit near the Solar (at or inside 1au distance). In 1998, nevertheless, we bought fortunate: the one wide-orbit spacecraft dedicated to photo voltaic wind research, Ulysses, simply occurred to be radially aligned with a close-in spacecraft, Wind, when a CME was launched of their route.

The 2 spacecrafts’ observations of the ensuing magnetic cloud have now been re-examined in a research led by Daniele Telloni (INAF Astrophysical Observatory of Turin, Italy).

Colliding Clouds

The alignment of the Wind and Ulysses spacecraft with the Sun
Alignment of Wind (blue) and Ulysses (crimson) with respect to the Solar (yellow star) in March 1998.
Telloni et al. 2020

The magnetic cloud contained on this interplanetary CME arrived at Wind, which orbits at 1 au, in early March of 1998. 18 days later, the cloud arrived at Ulysses, which occurred to be in line on the time at 5.four au (out at Jupiter’s orbit). Telloni and collaborators carried out new evaluation of Ulysses’s and Wind’s mixed knowledge units for the interplanetary magnetic discipline and the photo voltaic wind plasma in the course of the magnetic cloud’s passage of the 2 spacecraft.

The authors’ work reveals that the cloud did not journey undisturbed by the area between Earth’s and Jupiter’s orbits, however as a substitute skilled vital erosion and restructuring alongside the best way, seemingly because of interplay with one other magnetic cloud from a earlier photo voltaic ejection. This erosion stripped away a number of the helical magnetic discipline encasing the cloud, changing saved magnetic vitality into kinetic vitality as magnetic discipline traces rearranged on the interface between the 2 clouds.

This invaluable perception was made doable because of two spacecraft being aligned on the proper time — so what are the probabilities of related good luck sooner or later? With the wealth of just lately launched planetary and photo voltaic missions like BepiColombo, Photo voltaic Orbiter, and Parker Photo voltaic Probe, odds are good for future radial alignments that may permit us to additional measure ejections from the Solar.


“Magnetohydrodynamic Turbulent Evolution of a Magnetic Cloud within the Outer Heliosphere,” Daniele Telloni et al 2020 ApJL 905 L12. doi:10.3847/2041-8213/abcb03

This submit initially appeared on AAS Nova, which options analysis highlights from the journals of the American Astronomical Society.


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