By NASA // April 6, 2019
(NASA) – For five months in mid 2017, Emily Mason did the same thing every day. Arriving to her office at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, she sat at her desk, opened up her computer, and stared at images of the Sun — all day, every day.
“I probably looked through three or five years’ worth of data,” Mason estimated. Then, in October 2017, she stopped. She realized she had been looking at the wrong thing all along.
Mason, a graduate student at The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., was searching for coronal rain: giant globs of plasma, or electrified gas, that drip from the Sun’s outer atmosphere back to its surface. But she expected to find it in helmet streamers, the million-mile tall magnetic loops — named for their resemblance to a knight’s pointy helmet — that can be seen protruding from the Sun during a solar eclipse.
Computer simulations predicted the coronal rain could be found there.
Observations of the solar wind, the gas escaping from the Sun and out into space, hinted that the rain might be happening. And if she could just find it, the underlying rain-making physics would have major implications for the 70-year-old mystery of why the Sun’s outer atmosphere, known as the corona, is so much hotter than its surface. But after nearly half a year of searching, Mason just couldn’t find it. “It was a lot of looking,” Mason said, “for something that never ultimately happened.”
The problem, it turned out, wasn’t what she was looking for, but where. In a paper published today in the Astrophysical Journal Letters, Mason and her coauthors describe the first observations of coronal rain in a smaller, previously overlooked kind of magnetic loop on the Sun.
After a long, winding search in the wrong direction, the findings forge a new link between the anomalous heating of the corona and the source of the slow solar wind — two of the biggest mysteries facing solar science today.
How It Rains on the Sun
Observed through the high-resolution telescopes mounted on NASA’s SDO spacecraft, the Sun – a hot ball of plasma, teeming with magnetic field lines traced by giant, fiery loops — seems to have few physical similarities with Earth. But our home planet provides a few useful guides in parsing the Sun’s chaotic tumult: among them, rain.
On Earth, rain is just one part of the larger water cycle, an endless tug-of-war between the push of heat and pull of gravity. It begins when liquid water, pooled on the planet’s surface in oceans, lakes, or streams, is heated by the Sun.
Some of it evaporates and rises into the atmosphere, where it cools and condenses into clouds. Eventually, those clouds become heavy enough that gravity’s pull becomes irresistible and the water falls back to Earth as rain, before the process starts anew.
On the Sun, Mason said, coronal rain works similarly, “but instead of 60-degree water you’re dealing with a million-degree plasma.” Plasma, an electrically-charged gas, doesn’t pool like water, but instead traces the magnetic loops that emerge from the Sun’s surface like a rollercoaster on tracks. At the loop’s foot points, where it attaches to the Sun’s surface, the plasma is superheated from a few thousand to over 1.8 million degrees Fahrenheit. It then expands up the loop and gathers at its peak, far from the heat source. As the plasma cools, it condenses and gravity lures it down the loop’s legs as coronal rain.
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