Hat tip to Paul Vaughan [and A C Osborn on comments], who spotted this interesting new article at NASA’s website:
March 8, 2013: Using data from an aging NASA spacecraft, researchers have found signs of an energy source in the solar wind that has caught the attention of fusion researchers. NASA will be able to test the theory later this decade when it sends a new probe into the sun for a closer look.
The discovery was made by a group of astronomers trying to solve a decades-old mystery: What heats and accelerates the solar wind?
The solar wind is a hot and fast flow of magnetized gas that streams away from the sun’s upper atmosphere. It is made of hydrogen and helium ions with a sprinkling of heavier elements. Researchers liken it to the steam from a pot of water boiling on a stove; the sun is literally boiling itself away.
“But,” says Adam Szabo of the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, “solar wind does something that steam in your kitchen never does. As steam rises from a pot, it slows and cools. As solar wind leaves the sun, it accelerates, tripling in speed as it passes through the corona. Furthermore, something inside the solar wind continues to add heat even as it blows into the cold of space.”
Finding that “something” has been a goal of researchers for decades. In the 1970s and 80s, observations by two German/US Helios spacecraft set the stage for early theories, which usually included some mixture of plasma instabilities, magnetohydrodynamic waves, and turbulent heating. Narrowing down the possibilities was a challenge. The answer, it turns out, has been hiding in a dataset from one of NASA’s oldest active spacecraft, a solar probe named Wind.