Parker Solar Probe Switchbacks

Parker Solar Probe observed switchbacks– taking a trip disturbances in the solar wind that triggered the magnetic field to flex back on itself– an as-yet unexplained phenomenon that might help scientists reveal more info about how the solar wind is accelerated from the Sun. Credit: NASA’s Goddard Area Flight Center/Conceptual Image Lab/Adriana Manrique Gutierrez

When NASA‘s Parker Solar Probe sent back the very first observations from its trip to the Sun, researchers discovered signs of a wild ocean of currents and waves quite unlike the near-Earth space much more detailed to our world. This ocean was spiked with what ended up being called switchbacks: rapid turns in the Sun’s electromagnetic field that reversed instructions like a zig-zagging mountain road.

Scientists believe piecing together the story of switchbacks is a fundamental part of understanding the solar wind, the continuous stream of charged particles that streams from the Sun. The solar wind races through the planetary system, shaping a huge area weather condition system, which we regularly study from different vantage points around the planetary system– however we still have basic concerns about how the Sun initially handles to shoot out this two-million-miles-per-hour gust.

Solar physicists have long understood the solar wind comes in two tastes: the quick wind, which travels around 430 miles per second, and the slow wind, which takes a trip closer to 220 miles per second. The fast wind tends to come from coronal holes, dark areas on the Sun full of open electromagnetic field. Slower wind emerges from parts of the Sun where open and closed electromagnetic fields socialize. But there is much we have actually still to learn about what drives the solar wind, and scientists presume switchbacks– fast jets of solar material peppered throughout it– hold ideas to its origins.

Because their discovery, switchbacks have actually stimulated a flurry of studies and scientific debate as scientists attempt to describe how the magnetic pulses form.

” This is the scientific process in action,” stated Kelly Korreck, Heliophysics program researcher at NASA Headquarters. “There are a variety of theories, and as we get increasingly more information to test those theories, we get closer to figuring out switchbacks and their role in the solar wind.”

Magnetic fireworks

On one side of the dispute: a group of scientists who think switchbacks originate from a remarkable magnetic surge that takes place in the Sun’s environment.

Indications of what we now call switchbacks were very first observed by the joint NASA-European Area Company objective Ulysses, the first spacecraft to fly over the Sun’s poles. But decades later on when the information streamed below Parker Solar Probe to the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Lab in Laurel, Maryland, which manages the objective, researchers were surprised to find many.

Parker Solar Probe Rendering

A making of Parker Solar Probe as it circles around the sun– closer to a star than any spacecraft has ever ventured. Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins APL/Steve Gribben

As the Sun turns and its superheated gases churn, electromagnetic fields move around our star. Some electromagnetic field lines are open, like ribbons waving in the wind. Others are closed, with both ends or “footpoints” anchored in the Sun, forming loops that course with scorching hot solar material. One theory– at first proposed in 1996 based upon Ulysses information– suggests switchbacks are the result of a clash between open and closed magnetic fields. An analysis released last year by researchers Justin Kasper and Len Fisk of the University of Michigan even more explores the 20- year-old theory.

When an open electromagnetic field line brushes against a closed magnetic loop, they can reconfigure in a process called interchange reconnection– an explosive rearrangement of the electromagnetic fields that causes a switchback shape. “Magnetic reconnection is a little like scissors and a soldering weapon combined into one,” said Gary Zank, a solar physicist at the University of Alabama Huntsville. The open line snaps onto the closed loop, cutting complimentary a hot burst of plasma from the loop, while “gluing” the 2 fields into a new setup. That sudden breeze throws an S-shaped kink into the open electromagnetic field line before the loop reseals– a little like, for instance, the way a quick jerk of the hand will send out an S-shaped wave traveling down a rope.

Other research documents have actually taken a look at how switchbacks take shape after the fireworks of reconnection. Frequently, this indicates building mathematical simulations, then comparing the computer-generated switchbacks to Parker Solar Probe data. If they’re a close match, the physics utilized to create the models might successfully help describe the genuine physics of switchbacks.

Zank led the development of the very first switchbacks model. His model recommends not one, but two magnetic whips are born throughout reconnection: One takes a trip down to the solar surface area and one zips out into the solar wind. Like an electrical wire made from a bundle of smaller sized wires, each magnetic loop is made of lots of magnetic field lines. “What takes place is, each of these private wires reconnects, so you produce a whole slew of switchbacks in a short amount of time,” Zank stated.

Zank and his group designed the really first switchback Parker Solar Probe observed, on November 6,2018 This very first model fit the observations well, encouraging the group to develop it further. The team’s results were released in The Astrophysical Journal on October 26,2020

They differ when it comes to the nature of switchbacks themselves.

In Drake’s simulations, the kink in the field didn’t take a trip really far before blowing over. “Magnetic field lines are like elastic band, they like to snap back to their original shape,” he described. The researchers understood the switchbacks had to be stable enough to travel out to where Parker Solar Probe could see them. On the other hand, flux ropes– which are thought to be core elements of numerous solar eruptions– are stronger. Photo a magnetic striped sweet cane. That’s a flux rope: strips of electromagnetic field twisted around a bundle of more magnetic field.

Drake and his group believe flux ropes might be a vital part of describing switchbacks, because they should be stable sufficient to travel out to where Parker Solar Probe observed them. Their study– released in Astronomy and Astrophysics on October 8, 2020– lays the groundwork for building a flux rope-based design to explain the origins of switchbacks.

What these scientists have in common is they believe magnetic reconnection can explain not only how switchbacks form, but also how the solar wind is heated up and slings out from the Sun. In specific, switchbacks are linked to the sluggish solar wind. Each switchback shoots a gob of hot plasma into space. “So we’re asking, ‘If you add up all those bursts, can they contribute to the generation of the solar wind?'” Drake stated.

How Switchbacks Form

Illustration of five existing theories discussing how switchbacks form. Image is not to scale. Credit: NASA’s Goddard Area Flight Center/Miles Hatfield/Lina Tran/Mary-Pat Hrybyk Keith

Going with the flow

On the other side of the argument are researchers who think that switchbacks form in the solar wind, as a by-product of rough forces stirring it up.

Jonathan Squire, space physicist at New Zealand’s University of Otago, is one of them. Using computer system simulations, he studied how little variations in the solar wind evolved over time. “What we do is try and follow a little parcel of plasma as it moves outwards,” Squire said.

Each parcel of solar wind broadens as it escapes the Sun, blowing up like a balloon. Waves that swell throughout the Sun develop small ripples in that plasma, ripples that slowly grow as the solar wind spreads out.

” They begin initially as wiggles, but then what we see is as they grow even further, they turn into switchbacks,” Squire said. “That’s why we feel it’s rather an engaging concept– it simply happened by itself in the model.” The group didn’t need to include any guesses about brand-new physics into their models– the switchbacks appeared based upon relatively agreed-upon solar science.

Squire’s model, released on February 26, 2020, recommends switchbacks form naturally as the solar wind broadens into area. Parts of the solar wind that broaden more quickly, he anticipates, must also have more switchbacks– a prediction currently testable with the most recent Parker dataset.

Other researchers concur that switchbacks start in the solar wind, however think they form when quick and slow streams of solar wind rub versus one another. One October 2020 research study, led by Dave Ruffolo at Mahidol University in Bangkok, Thailand, described this idea.

Their models recommend that these swirls ultimately become switchbacks, curling the magnetic field lines back on themselves.

Parker Solar Probe Flying Through Switchback

Illustration of Parker Solar Probe flying through a switchback in the solar wind. Credit: NASA’s Goddard Area Flight Center/Conceptual Image Lab/Adriana Manrique Gutierrez

However the swirls do not form immediately– the solar wind has to be moving pretty quick before it can flex its otherwise rigid magnetic field lines. The solar wind reaches this speed about 8.5 million miles from the Sun.

” If this is the origin, then as Parker moves into the lower corona this shearing can’t take place,” Mattheaus said. “So, the switchbacks triggered by the phenomenon we’re describing ought to disappear.”

One element of switchbacks that these solar wind models have not yet effectively simulated is the truth that they tend to be stronger when they twist in a particular direction– the very same direction of the Sun’s rotation. However, both simulations were created with a Sun that was still, not turning, which may make the distinction. For these modelers, integrating the actual rotation of the Sun is the next step.

Twisting in the wind

Lastly, some scientists think switchbacks stem from both processes, starting with reconnection or footpoint movement at the Sun however just growing into their last shape once they go out into the solar wind. A paper published on March 9, 2021, by Nathan Schwadron and David McComas, space physicists at the University of New Hampshire and Princeton University, respectively, embraces this method, arguing that switchbacks form when streams of quick and sluggish solar wind realign at their roots.

This could occur in any case where slow and quick wind meet, but most significantly at the boundaries of coronal holes, where quick solar wind is born. As coronal holes migrate throughout the Sun, running underneath streams of slower solar wind, the footpoint from the slow solar wind plugs into a source of fast wind. Quick solar wind races after the slower stream ahead of it.

Schwadron believes the movement of coronal holes and of solar wind sources throughout the Sun is likewise a crucial puzzle piece. Reconnection at the leading edge of coronal holes, he recommends, might discuss why switchbacks tend to “zig” in a way that’s aligned with the Sun’s rotation.

” The reality that these are oriented in this specific way is informing us something very essential,” Schwadron said.

Though it begins with the Sun, Schwadron and McComas think those reconnecting streams just end up being switchbacks within the solar wind, where the Sun’s electromagnetic field lines are versatile sufficient to double-back on themselves.

As Parker Solar Probe dives more detailed and closer to the Sun, scientists will excitedly look for ideas that will support– or debunk– their theories.

Recommendation: “Switchbacks Explained: Super-Parker Fields– The Other Side of the Sub-Parker Spiral” by N. A. Schwadron and D. J. McComas, 9 March 2021, The Astrophysical Journal
DOI: 10.3847/1538-4357/ abd4e6

Parker Solar Probe becomes part of NASA’s Dealing with a Star program to explore aspects of the Sun– Earth system that directly affect life and society. The Coping with a Star flight program is handled by the company’s Goddard Area Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington, D.C. The Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Lab executes the mission for NASA. Scientific instrumentation is offered by groups led by the Naval Lab, Princeton University, the University of California, Berkeley, and the University of Michigan.


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