There's a snake on the Sun and Solar Orbiter has spotted it

It consists of a tube of cool plasma suspended by magnetic fields.
Loukia Papadopoulos
solar snake.jpg
Solar snake on the Sun

ESA/YouTube

There’s a snake on the sun’s surface and Solar Orbiter has once again spotted it, according to a press release by ESA published on Monday. It consists of a ‘tube’ of cooler atmospheric gases making its way through the Sun’s magnetic field. 

A tube of cool plasma suspended by magnetic fields

“The snake was seen on 5 September 2022, as Solar Orbiter was approaching the Sun for a close pass that took place on 12 October. It is a tube of cool plasma suspended by magnetic fields in the hotter surrounding plasma of the Sun’s atmosphere,” states ESA.

Because the temperature in the Sun is more than a million degrees centigrade, all its gas is in a plasma state. Plasma is what happens when a gas is so hot that its atoms begin to lose some of their outer particles, called electrons. This loss provides the gas with an electric charge making it susceptible to magnetic fields. The snake plasma in the Sun is following a long filament of the gas giant’s magnetic field that is reaching from one side of the celestial object to another.

“You're getting plasma flowing from one side to the other but the magnetic field is really twisted. So you're getting this change in direction because we're looking down on a twisted structure,” said David Long, Mullard Space Science Laboratory (UCL), UK, who is heading up the investigation into the phenomenon.

Observations from this event have been compiled to create a movie as a short time-lapse. The images in the clip come from the Extreme Ultraviolet Imager onboard Solar Orbiter. In reality, the snake took around three hours to complete its journey traveling at around 170 kilometers per second but the video showcases it in a matter of minutes.

Researchers have deduced that the snake began from a solar active region that later erupted, ejecting billions of tonnes of plasma into space. They speculate that the possibility exists that the snake was a precursor to this blast.

An intense solar energetic particle

The eruption marks one of the most intense solar energetic particle events detected so far by the Energetic Particle Detector.

“It's a really nice combination of datasets that we only get from Solar Orbiter,” says David.

But Solar Orbiter wasn’t the only craft affected by this eruption. The plasma from this coronal mass ejection happened to sweep over NASA’s Parker Solar Probe, allowing its instruments to measure the contents of the eruption.

The findings of both spacecraft will now be used to provide a better understanding of solar activity and the way it creates ‘space weather’, which can disrupt satellites and other technology on Earth.

Solar Orbiter is the result of an international collaboration between ESA and NASA, operated by ESA. First launched on 10 February 2020, earlier this month it celebrated its 1000th day in space. The craft has survived being hit by a mass ejection from the Sun and has thus far proved that solar switchbacks exist.

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