Images from NASA’s James Webb Telescope have revealed a giant vortex of plasma apparently swirling around the Sun’s north pole. The “solar polar vortex” now puzzles solar researchers.
Astronomers around the world are excited by a new video making the rounds on social media. It shows a huge chunk of the Sun detaching itself from its surface, forming a tornado-like vortex. The phenomenon was recorded by NASA’s James Webb Telescope and has amazed astronomers. “We’re talking about a polar vortex! Material from a northern prominence has just separated from the main filament and is now circulating in a massive polar vortex around our star’s north pole,” space meteorologist Tamitha Skov wrote on Twitter, sharing a video sequence obtained by the Solar Dynamics Observatory taken by NASA showing the strange whirlwind.
“The importance of understanding the Sun’s atmospheric dynamics above 55° cannot be overstated!”
Other solar physicists share Skov’s excitement at the unusual phenomenon. But what exactly is it and why is it so important? The sun is the most important reason for the existence of life on earth. The Sun, which looks like a ball of flame, constantly emits energy due to nuclear fusion at its core. About 25 percent of the rest is made up of helium gas. It also contains very small amounts of heavy elements including oxygen, carbon, neon and iron. While the study of the Sun continues to amaze astronomers, the fact that much of the Sun has broken away from its surface and is now forming a cyclonic cycle around its north pole has left scientists particularly baffled.
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The question now arises as to how this incident could have happened. What happened? Essentially, a long filament of plasma — the electrically charged gas that makes up all stars — shot out of the Sun’s surface, forming a giant loop known as a prominence. Prominences are composed of hydrogen and helium and typically erupt when a structure becomes unstable and erupts outward, releasing the plasma. Prominences are common and can extend hundreds of thousands of kilometers into space as the solar plasma weaves along tangled magnetic field lines. The sun emits electromagnetic radiation that can even threaten communication on earth.
What is odd, however, is that a prominence suddenly breaks apart and then stays aloft for hours, swirling around the Sun’s poles. The astronomers therefore now want to investigate whether the newly formed polar vortex at the sun’s north pole could possibly also have an impact on the earth’s natural cycle. Namely, as Skov and other researchers noted, the resulting plasma cyclone from the incident resembles a polar vortex — a type of low-pressure system that forms large loops of cold air over Earth’s poles in winter.
On Earth, polar vortices appear as so-called cold-air vortices that develop over both the Arctic and Antarctic in the winter months. They rotate in the opposite direction of the earth. A polar vortex is a low pressure area, i.e. a cold air zone. As a rule, this has a diameter of around 1,000 kilometers. The polar vortices occur primarily in winter, when larger temperature differences occur. Although found at the poles, polar vortices can affect the rest of Earth’s weather. But what does this mean for our sun?
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Scott McIntosh, a solar physicist and associate director at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colo Space.comthat he had never observed such behavior of solar plasma before. However, he pointed out, it is normal during each solar cycle for isolated filaments (prominences) to become detached near the Sun’s 55-degree latitude – where the strange phenomenon was spotted. A solar cycle is an 11-year period in which our Sun’s activity oscillates between a period of dormancy and a period of clustered sunspots, plasma flares, and solar storms.
Filaments like these appear more frequently as the Sun’s 11-year activity cycle moves toward Solar Maximum, the time of the Sun’s peak magnetic activity. During solar maximum, the Sun’s magnetic field lines become entangled and rip at high frequencies, creating many sunspots and launching large streams of plasma far into space. The next solar maximum is predicted for 2025. Therefore, solar activity has increased continuously in recent months.
By themselves, plasma filaments pose no threat to Earth. However, erupting filaments can lead to the release of giant, fast-moving plasma and magnetic field bubbles called coronal mass ejections (CMEs). When one of these electrified chunks passes Earth, it can damage satellites, disrupting electrical communications, causing widespread power outages and allowing colorful auroras to be seen at much lower latitudes than usual.
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Fortunately, the February 2nd filament was not aimed at Earth and did not trigger a CME. However, more research is now needed to find out how and why this rare solar vortex formed, and what consequences, if any, it might have. The scientists at least suspect that the phenomenon could be related to the reversal of the Sun’s magnetic field. As on Earth, the polar regions of the sun play a very important role in the formation of its magnetic field.
“Once every solar cycle, a filament forms at the 55th parallel and begins to travel toward the solar poles,” McIntosh explained. “But the newly discovered one is behaving very strangely. There’s a big question of ‘why’. Why does it move towards the poles only once and then disappear, only to magically reappear three or four years later in the exact same region ?” McIntosh also noted that the region affected by the phenomenon is an area that cannot be observed directly, since scientists can only observe the Sun from the ecliptic plane, which is the orbit of the planets.
The European Space Agency’s ongoing “Solar Orbiter” mission could give scientists some insight, as it takes pictures of the Sun from orbiting Mercury. But McIntosh believes it will take another mission to fully understand what’s happening on the sun. Events on the sun always bring such surprises. However, since these can also affect Earth or other aspects of the solar system, scientists usually keep a close eye on such extraordinary phenomena. However, more details about the latest incident are not expected until the coming months, when scientists have been able to investigate the incident further.
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