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New images reveal never-before-seen structures of the solar wind as it travels toward and impacts Earth
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Newly reprocessed archival data from STEREO-A/SECCHI show details of the first Earth-directed coronal mass ejection (CME) of the STEREO mission, from inception on December 12, 2008, to Earth impact on December 15, 2008. New processing enables following the details of the CME with the wide-field heliospheric imager cameras, out to impact with the Earth 93 million miles from the Sun.
Boulder, Colo. — Aug. 18, 2011 — Using data
collected by NASA's STEREO spacecraft, researchers at
Southwest Research Institute® (SwRI®) and the National Solar Observatory have developed the first
detailed images of solar wind structures as plasma and other particles
from a coronal mass ejection (CME) traveled 93 million miles and impacted
"For the first time, we can see directly the larger scale structures that cause blips in the solar wind impacting our spacecraft and Earth," said SwRI's Dr. Craig DeForest, lead author of an Astrophysical Journal article released online yesterday. "There is still a great deal to be learned from these data, but they are already changing the way we think about the solar wind."
"For 30 years," said co-author Dr. Tim Howard, also of SwRI, "we have been trying to understand basic anatomy of CMEs and magnetic clouds, and how they correspond to their source structures in the solar corona. By tracking these features through the image data we can establish what parts of a space weather storm came from which parts of the solar corona, and why."
The team used a combination of image processing techniques to generate the images over a distance of more than 1 AU (astronomical unit), overcoming the greatest challenge in heliospheric imaging, that of extracting faint signals amid far brighter foreground and background signals. Small "blobs" of solar wind tracked by the team were more than 10 billion times fainter than the surface of the full Moon and 10 thousand times fainter than the starfield behind them.
"These data are like the first demonstration weather satellite images that revolutionized meteorology on Earth," said DeForest. "At a glance it is possible to see things from a satellite that cannot be extracted from the very best weather stations on the ground. But both types of data are required to understand how storms develop."
In particular, the new images
reveal the shape and density of Jupiter-sized clouds of material in the
so-called empty space between planets; in contrast, in-situ probes such as
the WIND and ACE spacecraft reveal immense detail about the solar wind, at
a single point in space.
STEREO is part of NASA's Solar Terrestrial Probes Program in NASA's Science Mission Directorate in Washington. The program seeks to understand the fundamental physical process of the space environment from the Sun to Earth and other planets.
Editors: An animation of the changing solar wind features as it journeys to Earth is available at http://swri.org/press/2011/solarwind.htm.