Solving the sun’s super-heating mystery with Parker Solar Probe

Posted: June 5, 2019 by oldbrew in Electro-magnetism, Energy, research, Solar physics, Temperature, Thermodynamics, waves

‘The coronal heating problem in solar physics relates to the question of why the temperature of the Sun’s corona is millions of kelvins higher than that of the surface. Several theories have been proposed to explain this phenomenon but it is still challenging to determine which of these is correct’ — Wikipedia.

It’s one of the greatest and longest-running mysteries surrounding, quite literally, our sun—why is its outer atmosphere hotter than its fiery surface?

University of Michigan researchers believe they have the answer, and hope to prove it with help from NASA’s Parker Solar Probe, says

In roughly two years, the probe will be the first manmade craft to enter the zone surrounding the sun where heating looks fundamentally different than what has previously been seen in space.

This will allow them to test their theory that the heating is due to small magnetic waves travelling back and forth within the zone.

Solving the riddle would allow scientists to better understand and predict solar weather, which can pose serious threats to Earth’s power grid. And step one is determining where the heating of the sun’s outer atmosphere begins and ends—a puzzle with no shortage of theories.

Once within this zone, Parker Solar Probe will help determine what is causing the heating by directly measuring the magnetic fields and particles there.

“Whatever the physics is behind this superheating, it’s a puzzle that has been staring us in the eye for 500 years,” said Justin Kasper, a U-M professor of climate and space sciences and a principal investigator for the Parker mission. “In just two more years Parker Solar Probe will finally reveal the answer.”

The U-M theory is laid out in a paper, Strong Preferential Ion heating is Limited to Within the Solar Alfven Surface, published June 4 in The Astrophysical Journal Letters.

In this “zone of preferential heating” above sun’s surface, temperatures rise overall. More bizarre still, individual elements are heated to different temperatures, or preferentially. Some heavier ions are superheated until they’re ten times hotter than the hydrogen that is everywhere in this area—hotter than the core of the sun.

Such high temperatures cause the solar atmosphere to swell to many times the diameter of the sun and they’re the reason we see the extended corona during solar eclipses. In that sense, Kasper says, the coronal heating mystery has been visible to astronomers for more than half a millenium, even if the high temperatures were only appreciated within the last century.

This same zone features hydromagnetic “Alfvén waves” moving back and forth between its outermost edge and the sun’s surface. At the outermost edge, called the Alfvén point, the solar wind moves faster than the Alfvén speed, and the waves can no longer travel back to the sun.

“When you’re below the Alfvén point, you’re in this soup of waves,” said Kasper. “Charged particles are deflected and accelerated by waves coming from all directions.”

In trying to estimate how far from the sun’s surface this preferential heating stops, U-M’s team examined decades of observations of the solar wind by NASA’s Wind spacecraft. They looked at how much of helium’s increased temperature close to the sun was washed out by collisions between ions in the solar wind as they traveled out to Earth. Watching the helium temperature decay allowed them to measure the distance to the outer edge of the zone.

“We take all of the data and treat it as a stopwatch to figure out how much time had elapsed since the wind was superheated,” Kasper said. “Since I know how fast that wind is moving, I can convert the information to a distance.”

Those calculations put the outer edge of the superheating zone roughly 10 to 50 solar radii from the surface. It was impossible to be more definitive since some values could only be guessed at.

Initially, Kasper didn’t think to compare his estimate of the zone’s location with the Alfvén point, but he wanted to know if there was a physically meaningful location in space that produced the outer boundary.

After reading that the Alfvén point and other surfaces have been observed to expand and contract with solar activity, he and co-author Kristopher Klein, a former U-M postdoc and new faculty at University of Arizona, reworked their analysis looking at year-to-year changes rather than considering the entire Wind mission.

“To my shock, the outer boundary of the zone of preferential heating and the Alfvén point moved in lockstep in a totally predictable fashion despite being completely independent calculations,” Kasper said. “You overplot them, and they’re doing the exact same thing over time.”

So does the Alfvén point mark the outer edge of the heating zone? And what exactly is changing under the Alfvén point that superheats heavy ions? We should know in the next couple of years.

Full article here.

The Astrophysical Journal – article: A Zone of Preferential Ion Heating Extends Tens of Solar Radii from the Sun [open access]

  1. oldbrew says:

    Energy cannot be transferred from the cooler photosphere to the corona by conventional heat transfer as this would violate the second law of thermodynamics. An analogy of this would be a light bulb raising the temperature of the air surrounding it to something greater than its glass surface. Hence, some other manner of energy transfer must be involved in the heating of the corona. [bold added]
    – – –
    To state the obvious: the required energy has to be either going out to the corona or coming in to it – or both.

  2. oldbrew says:

    More from Wikipedia:

    In 2012, high resolution (<0.2″) soft X-ray imaging with the High Resolution Coronal Imager aboard a sounding rocket revealed tightly wound braids in the corona. It is hypothesized that the reconnection and unravelling of braids can act as primary sources of heating of the active solar corona to temperatures of up to 4 million kelvins.

    In 2013, images from the High Resolution Coronal Imager revealed never-before-seen “magnetic braids” of plasma within the outer layers of these active regions

    Both these quotes seem to point to Birkeland currents. From another Wiki page:

    Birkeland currents are also one of a class of plasma phenomena called a z-pinch, so named because the azimuthal magnetic fields produced by the current pinches the current into a filamentary cable. This can also twist, producing a helical pinch that spirals like a twisted or braided rope, and this most closely corresponds to a Birkeland current.

  3. JB says:

    Same as the Birkeland current driving the noctilucent clouds at the pole presently. Saturn, Jupiter…
    And temperatures are hottest within the center of Birkeland currents, as observed with magnetic induction heating. It isn’t magnetic waves, but circulating currents that produce the heating. Yes, the answer HAS been staring them in the face for years. All they need do is start talking with those people who work with this phenomena every day in the lab.

  4. Kelvin Vaughan says:

    My name is on the Parker Solar Probe. (Along with a lot of others.)