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Can't stop won't stop: Solar Orbiter shows the Sun raging on

Written by  Tuesday, 18 June 2024 12:00
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Solar Orbiter's view of active region AR3664

The hyperactive sunspot region responsible for the beautiful auroras earlier in May was still alive and kicking when it rotated away from Earth’s view. Watching from the other side of the Sun, the ESA-led Solar Orbiter mission detected this same region producing the largest solar flare of this solar cycle. By observing the Sun from all sides, ESA missions reveal how active sunspot regions evolve and persist, which will help improve space weather forecasting.

Seeing both sides of the Sun at once
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Flare, energetic particles and coronal mass ejection

Immediately following the flare on 20 May, Solar Orbiter’s Energetic Particle Detector (EPD) detected a surge in ions moving at tens of thousands of kilometres per second, and electrons moving at near the speed of light.

Matching the time of this event, the computers on both BepiColombo and Mars Express (two of ESA’s planetary missions) saw a big jump in the number of memory errors, likely caused by solar energetic particles hitting physical memory cells inside the spacecraft. Mars Express Project Scientist Olivier Witasse notes: “These engineering data are meant to monitor spacecraft health, but this shows that they can also be used to detect space weather events, something not really foreseen!”

Soon after, Solar Orbiter’s Metis coronagraph saw the Sun blast out a so-called ‘coronal mass ejection’, and the MAG magnetometer witnessed its arrival at the spacecraft moments later. The huge bubble of plasma, made of charged particles moving up to around 3000 km/s, caused big swings in the magnetic field measured at the spacecraft. The Sun blasted out so much material that it was even seen from Earth’s side by the ESA/NASA SOHO mission.

These different datasets allow us to track the movement of particles and electromagnetic fields from this massive outburst throughout the Solar System. This, in turn, helps improve the accuracy of solar activity simulations.

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