We may finally know what causes solar winds

The enigmatic origin of solar winds, the charged particle streams emitted by the sun, has puzzled scientists for decades. However, a breakthrough might have emerged from the images captured by the Extreme Ultraviolet Imager (EUI) instrument aboard ESA’s and NASA’s Solar Orbiter last year. In a published Science paper, a team of researchers detailed their observations of numerous jets emanating from a dark region on the sun known as a “coronal hole.”

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Referred to as “picoflare jets,” these phenomena possess a mere one-trillionth of the energy of the most powerful solar flares. Despite their diminutive energy, these picoflare jets, spanning a few hundred kilometres in length and racing at speeds around 100 kilometres per second, endure for a brief duration of 20 to 100 seconds. Yet, the researchers contend that these jets release high-temperature plasma of sufficient magnitude to significantly contribute to the solar winds within our solar system.

While scientists have acknowledged coronal holes as wellspring zones for solar winds, the exact mechanism by which plasma streams originate from these areas has remained elusive. This recent revelation could potentially provide the long-sought answer.

Lakshmi Pradeep Chitta, the lead author of the study from the Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research, elucidated the significance of these findings: “The picoflare jets that we observed are the smallest, and energetically the weakest, type of jets in the solar corona that were not observed before…Still, the energy content of a single picoflare jet that lives for about 1 minute is equal to the average power consumed by about 10,000 households in the UK over an entire year.”

Chitta’s team intends to maintain their vigilance over coronal holes and other prospective sources of solar winds using the Solar Orbiter in the future. Apart from potentially unravelling the mysteries of plasma flows that instigate auroras on Earth, their ongoing observations might also illuminate the puzzling question of why the sun’s corona—its outer atmosphere—is substantially hotter than its surface. This newfound insight has the potential to revolutionize our comprehension of the sun’s behaviour and impact on our solar system.