NASA instruments captured the moment part of the Sun appeared to break away from the giant star and was swept away by a polar vortex. But according to the scientist who drew attention to it, it’s not as bad as it sounds.
Tamitha Skov, a space weather physicist and research scientist at The Aerospace Corporation in Southern California, went viral earlier this month when she shared images of the event.
“Talk about polar vortices!” she tweeted. “Material from a northern prominence has just separated from the main filament and is now circulating in a massive polar vortex around our star’s north pole.”
Basically, a large chunk of plasma broke off the sun’s surface. And the polar vortex that it was swept into is not the same as a polar vortex that we might experience here on Earth.
According to the National Weather Service, a polar vortex on our planet is a large low-pressure system of cold air that intensifies in winter. It occurs “fairly regularly” on Earth and is known for sending arctic weather waves to nearby areas.
But Sara Housseal, senior duty officer for space weather operations at the US Air Force’s Space Weather Operations Center, says it’s an event on the Sun that “far less understood or known.”
“Although it may (or may not) always be present, it’s not always visible,” she said, “so the filament that got caught in it allowed us to physically see and study it.”
The break-off in question occurred around noon on February 2 and can be seen in the upper left part of the Sun. In a video later posted to her Patreon account, Skov further explained the significance of the event.
“Some of this material is starting to detach from the main structure and be caught up in what looks like a polar wind,” she said. “And when the stuff starts to get kicked up in there, you can see that it takes about 8 hours for this material to completely orbit the pole at about 60 degrees.”
According to her preliminary calculations, Skov said the polar winds were moving “insanely fast” — at around 60 miles per second.
Solar physicist Scott McIntosh, associate director of the National Center for Atmospheric Research, told Space.com that plasma breaking off the Sun’s surface like this occurred at the Sun’s 55th parallel in previous solar cycles lasting 11 years.
Solar prominences, thought to be bright bits of plasma coming off the sun’s surface and anchoring back to it in a loop, are common. According to the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research, these events are “enormous” and can span thousands of miles. They can also last “several days or up to several months”.
However, McIntosh said he had never seen a protuberance and vortex interact like this before.
“Once every solar cycle, it forms at the 55th parallel and starts marching towards the sun’s poles,” he said. “It’s very strange. There’s a big why question. Why does it move towards the pole only once and then disappear and then magically come back three or four years later in the exact same region?”
The discovery could have “exciting” implications for understanding the solar system, Skov said, since other gas giant planets Saturn and Jupiter are also known for their intense polar winds.
“It turns out that our sun has more in common with these gas giants than meets the eye,” she said. “…So, while the sun still holds on to some of its mysteries, maybe today we’re just a step closer.”
Skov told ABC Radio Melbourne that it is a “very rare observation” of what is happening on the sun’s surface.
“This footage allowed us to really watch the winds and how fast things were moving,” she said. “…We really need to start learning more about how this big, magnetic activity machine — what we call magnet dynamo — how it works, because that’s what really creates space weather.”