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Solar wind

  The solar wind is a stream of charged particles (i.e., a plasma) which are ejected from the upper atmosphere of the sun. It consists mostly of high-energy electrons and protons (about 1 keV) that are able to escape the sun's gravity in part because of the high temperature of the corona and the high kinetic energy particles gain through a process that is not well understood at this time.

Many phenomena are directly related to the solar wind, including geomagnetic storms that can knock out power grids on Earth, aurorae (e.g., Northern Lights) and the plasma tail of a comet always pointing away from the sun. While early models of the solar wind used primarily thermal energy to accelerate the material, by the 1960s it was clear that thermal acceleration alone cannot account for the high speed solar wind. Some additional acceleration mechanism is required, but is not currently known, but most likely relates to magnetic fields in the solar atmosphere.

Mass loss of the sun due to solar winds is approximately 3•10-14 MSun/yr.[1]




In 1916, Norwegian researcher Kristian Birkeland was probably the first person to successfully predict that in the Solar Wind, "From a physical point of view it is most probable that solar rays are neither exclusively negative nor positive rays, but of both kinds"; in other words, the solar wind consists of both negative electrons and positive ions.[2]

Three years later in 1919, Frederick Lindemann also suggested that particles of both polarities, protons as well as electrons, come from the Sun.[3]

Around the 1930s, scientists had determined that the temperature of the solar corona must be a million degrees Celsius because of the way it stood out into space (as seen during total eclipses). Later spectroscopic work confirmed this extraordinary temperature. In the mid-1950s the British mathematician Sydney Chapman calculated the properties of a gas at such a temperature and determined it was such a superb conductor of heat that it must extend way out into space, beyond the orbit of Earth. Also in the 1950s, a German scientist named Ludwig Biermann became interested in the fact that no matter whether a comet is headed towards or away from the sun, its tail always points away from the Sun. Biermann postulated that this happens because the Sun emits a steady stream of particles that pushes the comet's tail away.[4]

Eugene Parker realised that the heat flowing from the sun in Chapman's model and the comet tail blowing away from the sun in Biermann's hypothesis had to be the result of the same phenomenon, which he termed the "solar wind".[5][6] Parker showed that even though the sun's corona is strongly attracted by solar gravity, it is such a good conductor of heat that it is still very hot at large distances. Since gravity weakens as distance from the sun increases, the outer coronal atmosphere escapes supersonically into interstellar space. Furthermore, Parker was the first person to notice that the weakening effect of the gravity has the same effect on hydrodynamic flow as a de Laval nozzle: it incites a transition from subsonic to supersonic flow.[7]

Opposition to Parker's hypothesis on the solar wind was strong. The paper he submitted to the Astrophysical Journal in 1958 was rejected by two reviewers. It was saved by the editor Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar (who later received the 1983 Nobel Prize in physics).

In January 1959, the first ever direct observations and measurements of strength of the solar wind were made by the Soviet satellite Luna 1.[8] They were performed using scintillation counters and gaseous ionization detectors.[9] Three years later its measurement was performed by Americans (Neugebauer and collaborators) using the Mariner 2 spacecraft.[10]

However, the acceleration of the fast wind is still not understood and cannot be fully explained by Parker's theory. The first numerical simulation of the solar wind in the solar corona including closed and open field lines was performed by Pneuman and Knopp in 1971. The magnetohydrodynamics equations in steady state were solved iteratively starting with an initial dipolar configuration.[11]

In the late 1990s the Ultraviolet Coronal Spectrometer (UVCS) instrument on board the SOHO spacecraft observed the acceleration region of the fast solar wind emanating from the poles of the sun, and found that the wind accelerates much faster than can be accounted for by thermodynamic expansion alone. Parker's model predicted that the wind should make the transition to supersonic flow at an altitude of about 4 solar radii from the photosphere; but the transition (or "sonic point") now appears to be much lower, perhaps only 1 solar radius above the photosphere, suggesting that some additional mechanism accelerates the solar wind away from the sun.

Effects on the planets


Main article: Atmosphere of Mercury

Mercury, the nearest planet to the Sun, bears the full brunt of the solar wind, and its atmosphere is vestigial and transient, its surface bathed in radiation.


Main article: Atmosphere of Venus

Venus, the nearest planet to Earth, has an atmosphere 100 times thicker than our own. Modern space probes have discovered a comet-like tail that stretches back to the orbit of the Earth.[12]


Main article: Magnetosphere

Earth itself is nominally protected from the solar wind by its magnetic field, which deflects charged particles but also serves as an electromagnetic energy transmission line to the Earth's upper atmosphere and ionosphere in the auroral zones. We only notice the solar wind when it is strong enough for this energy to produce phenomena such as the aurora and geomagnetic storms. Bright auroras strongly heat the ionosphere, causing its plasma to expand into the magnetosphere, increasing the size of the plasma geosphere, and causing escape of atmospheric matter into the solar wind. Geomagnetic storms result when the pressure of plasmas contained inside the magnetosphere is sufficiently large to inflate and thereby distort the geomagnetic field.

Earth's Moon

The moon has no atmosphere or intrinsic magnetic field, and consequently its surface is bombarded with the full solar wind. The Project Apollo missions deployed passive aluminum collectors in an attempt to sample the solar wind, and lunar soil returned for study confirmed that the lunar regolith is enriched in atomic nuclei deposited from the solar wind. There has been speculation that these elements may prove to be useful resources for future lunar colonies.


Main article: Atmosphere of Mars

Mars is larger than Mercury and four times farther from the sun, and yet even here it is thought that the solar wind has stripped away up to a third of its original atmosphere, leaving a layer 100 times thinner than the earth's.

Variability and space weather

Main article: Space weather

The solar wind is responsible for the overall shape of Earth's magnetosphere, and fluctuations in its speed, density, direction, and entrained magnetic field strongly affect Earth's local space environment. For example, the levels of ionizing radiation and radio interference can vary by factors of hundreds to thousands; and the shape and location of the magnetopause and bow shock wave upstream of it can change by several Earth radii, exposing geosynchronous satellites to the direct solar wind. These phenomena are collectively called space weather.

Main article: Coronal Mass Ejection

Both the fast and slow solar wind can be interrupted by large, fast-moving bursts of plasma called interplanetary coronal mass ejections, or ICMEs. ICMEs are the interplanetary manifestation of solar coronal mass ejections, which are caused by release of magnetic energy at the sun. ICMEs are often called "solar storms" or "space storms" in the popular media. They are sometimes, but not always, associated with solar flares, which are another manifestation of magnetic energy release at the Sun. ICMEs cause shock waves in the thin plasma of the heliosphere, launching electromagnetic waves and accelerating particles (mostly protons and electrons) to form showers of ionizing radiation) that precede the ICME.

When an ICME impacts the Earth's magnetosphere, it temporarily deforms the Earth's magnetic field, changing the direction of compass needles and inducing large electrical ground currents in Earth itself; this is called a geomagnetic storm and it is a global phenomenon. ICME impacts can induce magnetic reconnection in Earth's magnetotail (the midnight side of the magnetosphere); this launches protons and electrons downward toward Earth's atmosphere, where they form the aurora.

ICMEs are not the only cause of space weather. Different patches on the Sun are known to give rise to slightly different speeds and densities of wind depending on local conditions. In isolation, each of these different wind streams would form a spiral with a slightly different angle, with fast-moving streams moving out more directly and slow-moving streams wrapping more around the sun. Faster-moving streams tend to overtake slower streams that originate westward of them on the sun, forming turbulent co-rotating interaction regions that give rise to wave motions and accelerated particles, and that affect Earth's magnetosphere in the same way as, but more gently than, ICMEs.

Outer limits

Main article: Heliopause

The solar wind blows a "bubble" in the interstellar medium (the rarefied hydrogen and helium gas that permeates the galaxy). The point where the solar wind's strength is no longer great enough to push back the interstellar medium is known as the heliopause, and is often considered to be the outer "border" of the solar system. The distance to the heliopause is not precisely known, and probably varies widely depending on the current velocity of the solar wind and the local density of the interstellar medium, but it is known to lie far outside the orbit of Pluto. Scientists hope to gain more perspective on the heliopause from data acquired through the Interstellar Boundary Explorer (IBEX) mission, to be launched in 2008.

See also

  • Magnetopause
  • Magnetosphere
  • Ionosphere
  • Geosphere
  • Heliosphere
  • Helium Focusing Cone
  • Magnetic sail (Note: magnetic sails are propelled almost entirely due to the force of the solar wind)
  • Plasmasphere
  • Shock wave
  • Solar sail (Note: solar sails are propelled almost entirely due to the force of the sun's EM radiation, not the solar wind)
  • Parker spiral
  • Interplanetary Magnetic Field
  • Stellar wind


  1. ^ Carroll, B. and Ostlie, D. Modern Astrophysics - pg. 409 .
  2. ^ Kristian Birkeland, "Are the Solar Corpuscular Rays that penetrate the Earth's Atmosphere Negative or Positive Rays?" in Videnskapsselskapets Skrifter, I Mat -- Naturv. Klasse No.1, Christiania, 1916.
  3. ^ Philosophical Magazine, Series 6, Vol. 38, No. 228, December, 1919, 674 (on the Solar Wind)
  4. ^ Ludwig Biermann (1951). "Kometenschweife und solare Korpuskularstrahlung". Zeitschrift für Astrophysik 29: 274.
  5. ^ Christopher T. Russell. THE SOLAR WIND AND MAGNETOSPHERIC DYNAMICS. Institute of Geophysics and Planetary Physics University of California, Los Angeles. Retrieved on 2007-02-07.
  6. ^ Roach, John. "Astrophysicist Recognized for Discovery of Solar Wind", National Geographic News, August 27, 2003. Retrieved on 2006-06-13. 
  7. ^ Eugene Parker (1958). "Dynamics of the Interplanetary Gas and Magnetic Fields". The Astrophysical Journal 128: 664.
  8. ^ Luna 1. NASA National Space Science Data Center. Retrieved on 2007-08-04.
  9. ^ (Russian) 40th Anniversary of the Space Era in the Nuclear Physics Scientific Research Institute of the Moscow State University, contains the graph showing particle detection by Luna 1 at various altitudes.
  10. ^ M. Neugebauer and C. W. Snyder (1962). "Solar Plasma Experiment". Science 138: 1095–1097.
  11. ^ G. W. Pneuman and R. A. Kopp (1971). "Gas-magnetic field interactions in the solar corona". Solar Physics 18: 258.
  12. ^ Grünwaldt H et al. (1997). "Venus tail ray observation near Earth.". Geophysical Research Letters 24 (10): 163–1166.

This article is licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License. It uses material from the Wikipedia article "Solar_wind". A list of authors is available in Wikipedia.
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