A mysterious ‘Rosetta Stone’ explosion reveals a missing link behind solar eruptions

Solar eruption
The failed portion of a solar eruption on March 13, 2016.

  • Scientists recently examined a solar eruption from 2016 that seemed to defy categorization.
  • They named it the “Rosetta Stone” since it connected three different types of eruptions.
  • Their research now suggests that all three forms of solar eruptions may have the same origin.
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When the sun isn’t sleeping, it’s bursting with activity – including giant solar eruptions.

These eruptions usually take a few forms: The most violent ones are either narrow beams of solar material, known as jets, or large bubbles of that same material known as coronal mass ejections. Other times, bursts of energy and solar particles fail to launch all the way into space, then fall back down toward the sun. That’s called a partial eruption.

But in March 2016, NASA scientists detected an eruption that didn’t neatly fit these categories: The sun spewed a hot layer of solar material that was too big for a jet, but too narrow for a coronal mass ejection. A half-hour later, a partial eruption emerged from the same location, blasting cooler plasma that ultimately collapsed on itself.

New research presented at the American Astronomical Society this week dubbed the event a “Rosetta Stone” eruption since it connected all three forms of solar eruptions – and even suggested they might have the same origin.

“This event is a missing link, where we can see all of these aspects of different types of eruptions in one neat little package,” Emily Mason, a solar scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, said in a statement. “It drives home the point that these eruptions are caused by the same mechanism, just at different scales.”

Scientists now suspect that solar eruptions exist on a spectrum, with jets on one end and coronal mass ejections on the other. But they haven’t figured out the underlying mechanism that drives these eruptions – or why certain eruptions take one form over another.

The new research could bring them closer to an answer. Eventually, scientists may even be able to more accurately predict when a large solar eruption is headed toward Earth.

Scientists are still puzzled by the ‘failed’ eruption

coronal mass ejection cme solar eruption gif
A coronal mass ejection as seen from NASA’s Solar Terrestrial Relations Observatory-A spacecraft.

The conditions behind a solar eruption build up over several days or weeks.

As the sun rotates, its magnetic field lines become twisted and tangled. When two oppositely-charged magnetic fields move apart, the field lines that connect them stretch out like a rubber band. In the process, they accumulate energy and fill up with plasma. All that energy and particles then gets released as magnetic fields break and reconnect.

This ultimately results in an eruption, though scientists still haven’t identified an obvious trigger.

In the case of the “Rosetta Stone” eruption, scientists first spotted an active region – an area of intense magnetic activity that can give rise to solar eruptions – in January 2016.

The actual eruption took place less than two months later, when a dome of hot plasma lifted off, producing a crossover between a jet and a coronal mass ejection. A ring of cooler plasma underneath seemed like it would erupt as well, but it rose and fell back down like “cars on a roller coaster track,” Mason told the Universities Space Research Association.

sun solar eruption
A photo of a huge, handle-shaped prominence erupting from the sun, taken on September 14, 1999.

That partial, or “failed,” eruption was puzzling to scientists, so Mason’s team is now searching for more clues through computer models.

Finding out what triggers an eruption, or why certain eruptions fail, could help scientists identify solar storms several hours before they approach our planet. Right now, scientists are only able to reliably predict space weather about an hour in advance.

That’s not much of a warning, considering that the most intense solar storms can interfere with spacecraft technology and make it harder for astronauts to communicate with mission control.

Solar storms can also down power grids or satellite communications. In 2017, for instance, two solar storms cut off emergency radio communications in the immediate wake of Hurricane Irma – one of the most powerful Atlantic hurricanes on record.

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A sun-skimming spacecraft captured video of a massive plasma eruption on the solar surface for the first time

solar orbiter sun spacecraft
An artist’s impression of the Solar Orbiter observing an eruption on the sun.

The sun is constantly bubbling and bursting. If eruptions on its surface are big enough, they can send billions of tons of plasma and electrically charged particles hurtling toward Earth.

To observe and study those kinds of explosions – called coronal mass ejections (CMEs) – NASA and the European Space Agency (ESA) launched the Solar Orbiter probe in February 2020.

The probe made a close approach to our star this year, on February 10, when it flew within 48 million miles (77 million kilometers) of the sun – half the distance between the sun and Earth. As it careened past the sun, back to cooler zones of space, the orbiter caught video footage of two CMEs.

Three imaging instruments on the spacecraft traced the CME as it left the sun and spread through space. The first instrument recorded the sun itself, while the second captured the flow of energy through the sun’s corona, or outer atmosphere.

A third imager captured the stream of electrically charged particles, dust, and cosmic rays flowing out into space from the eruption.

coronal mass ejection cme solar wind gif
The first coronal mass ejection, or CME, observed by the Solar Orbiter Heliospheric Imager appears as a sudden gust of white.

Solar storms can brew dangerous space weather

Outbursts like this are beautiful, and they often interact with Earth’s atmosphere to make the aurora lights, but they can be dangerous.

In 1989, an inundation of electrically charged particles from the sun knocked out Quebec’s power for about nine hours. Two other solar storms cut off emergency radio communications for a total of 11 hours shortly after Hurricane Irma in 2017. A solar storm may have even cut off SOS broadcasts from the Titanic as it sank in 1912.

aurora borealis iss
The aurora borealis, or the “northern lights,” over Canada is sighted from the space station near the highest point of its orbital path, September 15, 2017.

Bursts of solar activity can also endanger astronauts by interfering with their spacecraft or knocking out communications to mission control.

That’s why the Solar Orbiter is investigating such eruptions. Studying the source of these unpredictable electrical storms could help scientists figure out how to protect both astronauts and Earth’s electric grid.

“What we want to do with Solar Orbiter is to understand how our star creates and controls the constantly changing space environment throughout the solar system,” Yannis Zouganelis, an ESA scientist working on the mission, said last year, before the probe launched. “There are still basic mysteries about our star that remain unsolved.”

Watching solar explosions from 2 sides of the sun

On the other side of the sun, near Earth, two other ESA spacecraft – the Proba-2 satellite and the Solar and Heliospheric Observatory (SOHO) – also captured the same two CMEs. The footage below show’s Proba-2’s view of the the eruptions (left) and SOHO’s imagery of the plasma shooting through space (right).

NASA’s Solar Terrestrial Relations Observatory, a spacecraft orbiting the sun alongside Earth, also saw the two CMEs. That telescope blocks out the sun to capture eruptions more clearly – its footage is below.

coronal mass ejection cme solar eruption gif
The first CME witnessed by the Solar Orbiter’s Heliospheric Imager, as seen from NASA’s Solar Terrestrial Relations Observatory-A spacecraft.

The sun is entering a new 11-year solar cycle, which means its eruptions and flares are expected to grow more frequent and violent, ramping up to a peak in 2025.

Over the next six years, the Solar Orbiter is set to fly closer to the sun’s poles than any previous probe has come. It’s also expected to send the first photos of the solar poles back to Earth. The spacecraft will be able to keep pace with the sun’s rotation, which enables it to hover over specific spots for long periods of time to watch CMEs and other areas of heightened activity.

By combining data from Solar Orbiter and other space telescopes, NASA and the ESA can watch solar eruptions from their source almost all the way back to Earth.

Already, the Solar Orbiter has spotted these two CMEs and captured the closest images ever taken of the sun. But it’s just getting started. Right now, the spacecraft is in cruise mode – it’s getting its bearings and testing its instruments. The spacecraft is scheduled to start operating all those instruments at full capacity in November. That’s when it will be in full science mode.

Eventually, the probe should venture even closer to the sun than the planet Mercury – within 26 million miles (42 million kilometers).

“We’ve realized in the last 25 years that there’s a lot that happens to a CME between the surface of the sun and Earth,” Robin Colaninno, a researcher working on one of Solar Orbiter’s cameras, said in a NASA release. “So we’re hoping to get much better resolution images of all of these outflows by being closer to the sun.”

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Scientists spotted a ‘space hurricane’ swirling above the magnetic north pole. It was raining charged solar particles.

space hurricane
An illustration of a space hurricane above the North Pole.

Typical hurricanes are easy to spot in satellite imagery: Swirling clouds surround a quiet eye. These storms usually form in the lowest layer of the atmosphere, closer to Earth’s surface, and unleash heavy rain and strong winds.

But according to a recent study, space hurricanes are wholly different beasts.

The research, published in the journal Nature Communications, describes the first space hurricane ever spotted. Satellites observed it in August 2014 – a swirling mass with a quiet center more than 125 miles above the North Pole. 

Whereas regular hurricanes churn air, this space hurricane was an eddy of plasma, a type of super hot, charged gas found throughout the solar system. And instead of rain, this storm brought showers of electrons.

“Until now, it was uncertain that space plasma hurricanes even existed, so to prove this with such a striking observation is incredible,” Michael Lockwood, a space scientist at the University of Reading and a co-author of the new study, said in a press release.

The space hurricane was more than 620 miles wide, and high in the sky – it formed in the ionosphere layer, between 50 and 600 miles up. Lockwood and his coauthors used the satellite data to create a 3D model of the storm.

Space hurricanes could wreak havoc on satellites

The space hurricane lasted eight hours, swirling in a counter-clockwise direction. It had several spiral arms snaking out from its center, according to the researchers, a bit like a spiral galaxy.

spiral galaxy NASA
The NGC 1566 spiral galaxy, as photographed by NASA’s Hubble Telescope.

By plugging the satellite data into a computer model, Lockwood and his collaborators were able to reproduce the storm and figure out what caused it. The results showed that charged particles emitted by the sun’s upper atmosphere, the corona, were to blame.

This steady stream of solar particles and coronal plasma is known as solar wind; it moves at about 1 million miles per hour.

“These space hurricanes must be created by unusually large and rapid transfers of solar wind energy and charged particles into the Earth’s upper atmosphere,” Lockwood said.

As solar wind reaches Earth, it encounters the planet’s magnetic field. Earth has such a field because of the swirling liquid iron and nickel in its outer core, which gives rise to electric currents. The resulting magnetosphere protects the planet from deadly radiation from the sun but also retains a tiny layer of plasma from that solar wind.

magnetic field
Earth’s magnetic field protects the planet from solar radiation.

Typically, solar winds glance off this protective sheath. But sometimes, the incoming charged particles and plasma interact with either the trapped plasma or the electrical currents generating the field. Such interactions create disturbances in the magnetosphere. 

The 2014 space hurricane was one such disturbance.

In particular, the study authors suggest that an interaction between the Earth’s magnetic field and bits of the sun’s magnetic field – transported on the solar wind – helped form the storm.

Usually, magnetic fields don’t mix. But if they do come close together, portions of the fields can get realigned and sometimes even merge – forming a new pattern of magnetic energy. That’s what likely happened on the day of the space storm: An influx of solar wind energy formed a new pattern above Earth’s magnetic north pole.

Once it had formed, the storm acted like a channel from space into Earth’s atmosphere – funneling some electrons down past the planet’s armor. 

This particle rain could have wreaked havoc on our high-frequency radio communications, radar-detection systems, or satellite technology, according to the study authors. That’s because charged solar particles that seep through Earth’s magnetic field are known to cause malfunctions in computers and circuitry on satellites and the International Space Station. Luckily in this case, no issues were observed.

Other planets could have space hurricanes, too

jupiter magnetic field
An illustration of Jupiter’s magnetic field, part of the American Natural History Museum’s planetarium show, “Worlds Beyond Earth.”

Earth isn’t the only planet to experience hurricanes: similar weather patterns occur on Mars, Saturn, and Jupiter. But this is the first time scientists have spotted a hurricane in the upper atmosphere of any planet in the solar system.

Lockwood thinks any planet or moon with a magnetosphere could experience a space hurricane, however. All planets in our solar system except Venus and Mars have those.

“Plasma and magnetic fields in the atmosphere of planets exist throughout the universe, so the findings suggest space hurricanes should be widespread phenomena,” he said.

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