Forum for Science, Industry and Business

Sponsored by:     3M 
Search our Site:

 

Cluster helps disentangle turbulence in the solar wind

05.10.2010
From Earth, the Sun looks like a calm, placid body that does little more than shine brightly while marching across the sky. Images from a bit closer, of course, show it's an unruly ball of hot gas that can expel long plumes out into space – but even this isn't the whole story.

Surrounding the Sun is a roiling wind of electrons and protons that shows constant turbulence at every size scale: long streaming jets, smaller whirling eddies, and even microscopic movements as charged particles circle in miniature orbits. Through it all, great magnetic waves and electric currents move through, stirring up the particles even more.

This solar wind is some million degrees Celsius, can move as fast as 750 kilometers (466 statute miles) per second, and – so far – defies a complete description by any one theory. It's hotter than expected, for one, and no one has yet agreed which of several theories offers the best explanation.

Now, the ESA/NASA Cluster mission – four identical spacecraft that fly in a tight formation to provide 3-dimensional snapshots of structures around Earth – has provided new information about how the protons in the solar wind are heated.

"We had a perfect window of 50 minutes," says NASA scientist Melvyn Goldstein, chief of the Geospace Physics Laboratory at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md. and co-author of the new paper that appeared in Physical Review Letters on September 24. "It was a time when the four Cluster spacecraft were so close together they could watch movements in the solar wind at a scale small enough that it was possible to observe the heating of protons through turbulence directly for the first time."

Scientists know that large turbulence tends to "cascade" down into smaller turbulence -- imagine the sharply defined whitecaps on top of long ocean waves. In ocean waves, the energy from such cascades naturally adds a small amount of heat from friction as the particles shift past each other, thus heating the water slightly. But the fast, charged particles – known as "plasma" -- around the sun don't experience that kind of friction, yet they heat up in a similar way.

"Unlike the usual fluids of everyday life," says Fouad Sahraoui, lead author of a new paper on the solar wind and a scientist at the CNRS-Ecole Polytechnique-UPMC in France, "plasmas possess electric and magnetic fields generated by the motions of proton and electrons. This changes much of the intuitive images that we get from observing conventional fluids."

Somehow the magnetic and electric fields in the plasma must contribute to heating the particles. Decades of research on the solar wind have been able to infer the length and effects of the magnetic waves, but direct observation was not possible before the Cluster mission watched large waves from afar. These start long as long wavelength fluctuations, but lose energy – while getting shorter – over time. Loss of energy in the waves transfer energy to the solar wind particles, heating them up, but the exact method of energy transfer, and the exact nature of the waves doing the heating, has not been completely established.

In addition to trying to find the mechanism that heats the solar wind, there's another mystery: The magnetic waves transfer heat to the particles at different rates depending on their wavelength. The largest waves lose energy at a continuous rate until they make it down to about 100-kilometer wavelength. They then lose energy even more quickly before they hit around 2-kilometer wavelength and return to more or less the previous rate. To tackle these puzzles, scientists used data from Cluster when it was in the solar wind in a position where it could not be influenced by Earth's magnetosphere.

For this latest paper, the four Cluster spacecraft provided 50 minutes of data at a time when conditions were just right -- the spacecraft were in a homogeneous area of the solar wind, they were close together, and they formed a perfect tetrahedral shape -- such that the instruments could measure electromagnetic waves in three dimensions at the small scales that affect protons.

The measurements showed that the cascade of turbulence occurs through the action of a special kind of traveling waves – named Alfvén waves after Nobel laureate Hannes Alfvén, who discovered them in 1941.

The surprising thing about the waves that Cluster observed is that they pointed perpendicular to the magnetic field. This is in contrast to previous work from the Helios spacecraft, which in the 1970's examined magnetic waves closer to the sun. That work found magnetic waves running parallel to the magnetic field, which can send particles moving in tight circular orbits – a process known as cyclotron resonance -- thus giving them a kick in both energy and temperature. The perpendicular waves found here, on the other hand, create electric fields that efficiently transfer energy to particles by, essentially, pushing them to move faster.

Indeed, earlier Cluster work suggested that this process – known as Landau damping – helped heat electrons. But, since much of the change in temperature with distance from the sun is due to changes in the proton temperature, it was crucial to understand how they obtained their energy. Since hot electrons do not heat protons very well at all, this couldn't be the mechanism.

That Landau damping is what adds energy to both protons and electrons – at least near Earth – also helps explain the odd rate change in wave fluctuations as well. When the wavelengths are about 100 kilometers or a bit shorter, the electric fields of these perpendicular waves heat protons very efficiently. So, at these lengths, the waves transfer energy quickly to the surrounding protons -- offering an explanation why the magnetic waves suddenly begin to lose energy at a faster rate. Waves that are about two kilometers, however, do not interact efficiently with protons because the electric fields oscillate too fast to push them. Instead these shorter waves begin to push and heat electrons efficiently and quickly deplete all the energy in the waves.

"We can see that not all the energy is dissipated by protons," Sahraoui said. "The remaining energy in the wave continues its journey toward smaller scales, wavelengths of about two kilometers long. At that point, electrons in turn get heated."

Future NASA missions such as the Magnetospheric Multiscale mission, scheduled for launch in 2014, will be able to probe the movements of the solar wind at even smaller scales.

Cluster recently surpassed a decade of passing in and out of our planet's magnetic field, returning invaluable data to scientists worldwide. Besides studying the solar wind, Cluster's other observations include studying the composition of the earth's aurora and its magnetosphere.

For more information on Cluster visit: http://science.nasa.gov/missions/cluster/

Susan Hendrix | EurekAlert!
Further information:
http://www.nasa.gov

More articles from Physics and Astronomy:

nachricht Mars 2020 mission to use smart methods to seek signs of past life
17.08.2017 | Goldschmidt Conference

nachricht Gold shines through properties of nano biosensors
17.08.2017 | American Institute of Physics

All articles from Physics and Astronomy >>>

The most recent press releases about innovation >>>

Die letzten 5 Focus-News des innovations-reports im Überblick:

Im Focus: Fizzy soda water could be key to clean manufacture of flat wonder material: Graphene

Whether you call it effervescent, fizzy, or sparkling, carbonated water is making a comeback as a beverage. Aside from quenching thirst, researchers at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign have discovered a new use for these "bubbly" concoctions that will have major impact on the manufacturer of the world's thinnest, flattest, and one most useful materials -- graphene.

As graphene's popularity grows as an advanced "wonder" material, the speed and quality at which it can be manufactured will be paramount. With that in mind,...

Im Focus: Exotic quantum states made from light: Physicists create optical “wells” for a super-photon

Physicists at the University of Bonn have managed to create optical hollows and more complex patterns into which the light of a Bose-Einstein condensate flows. The creation of such highly low-loss structures for light is a prerequisite for complex light circuits, such as for quantum information processing for a new generation of computers. The researchers are now presenting their results in the journal Nature Photonics.

Light particles (photons) occur as tiny, indivisible portions. Many thousands of these light portions can be merged to form a single super-photon if they are...

Im Focus: Circular RNA linked to brain function

For the first time, scientists have shown that circular RNA is linked to brain function. When a RNA molecule called Cdr1as was deleted from the genome of mice, the animals had problems filtering out unnecessary information – like patients suffering from neuropsychiatric disorders.

While hundreds of circular RNAs (circRNAs) are abundant in mammalian brains, one big question has remained unanswered: What are they actually good for? In the...

Im Focus: RAVAN CubeSat measures Earth's outgoing energy

An experimental small satellite has successfully collected and delivered data on a key measurement for predicting changes in Earth's climate.

The Radiometer Assessment using Vertically Aligned Nanotubes (RAVAN) CubeSat was launched into low-Earth orbit on Nov. 11, 2016, in order to test new...

Im Focus: Scientists shine new light on the “other high temperature superconductor”

A study led by scientists of the Max Planck Institute for the Structure and Dynamics of Matter (MPSD) at the Center for Free-Electron Laser Science in Hamburg presents evidence of the coexistence of superconductivity and “charge-density-waves” in compounds of the poorly-studied family of bismuthates. This observation opens up new perspectives for a deeper understanding of the phenomenon of high-temperature superconductivity, a topic which is at the core of condensed matter research since more than 30 years. The paper by Nicoletti et al has been published in the PNAS.

Since the beginning of the 20th century, superconductivity had been observed in some metals at temperatures only a few degrees above the absolute zero (minus...

All Focus news of the innovation-report >>>

Anzeige

Anzeige

Event News

Call for Papers – ICNFT 2018, 5th International Conference on New Forming Technology

16.08.2017 | Event News

Sustainability is the business model of tomorrow

04.08.2017 | Event News

Clash of Realities 2017: Registration now open. International Conference at TH Köln

26.07.2017 | Event News

 
Latest News

Gold shines through properties of nano biosensors

17.08.2017 | Physics and Astronomy

Greenland ice flow likely to speed up: New data assert glaciers move over sediment, which gets more slippery as it gets wetter

17.08.2017 | Earth Sciences

Mars 2020 mission to use smart methods to seek signs of past life

17.08.2017 | Physics and Astronomy

VideoLinks
B2B-VideoLinks
More VideoLinks >>>