BGR Bundesanstalt für Geowissenschaften und Rohstoffe



Coming soon: GIRAF 2011 Workshop

5. - 9. December 2011
Dar es Salaam, Tanzania
Organised by the IUGS-CGI and UNESCO
Hosting Organisation: SEAMIC


GIRAF: Geoscience InfoRmation AFrica. Logo

Solar wind


The solar wind is a stream of charged particles released from the upper atmosphere of the Sun, called the corona. This plasma consists of mostly electrons, protons and alpha particles with kinetic energy between 0.5 and 10 keV. Embedded within the solar-wind plasma is the interplanetary magnetic field. The solar wind varies in density, temperature and speed over time and over solar latitude and longitude. Its particles can escape the Sun's gravity because of their high energy resulting from the high temperature of the corona, which in turn is a result of the coronal magnetic field.

In 1910 British astrophysicist Arthur Eddington essentially suggested the existence of the solar wind, without naming it, in a footnote to an article on Comet Morehouse. The idea never fully caught on even though Eddington had also made a similar suggestion at a Royal Institution address the previous year. In the latter case, he postulated that the ejected material consisted of electrons while in his study of Comet Morehouse he supposed them to be ions.

In the late 1990s, the Ultraviolet Coronal Spectrometer (UVCS) instrument on board the SOHO spacecraft observed the acceleration region of the fast solar wind emanating from the poles of the Sun and found that the wind accelerates much faster than can be accounted for by thermodynamic expansion alone. Parker's model predicted that the wind should make the transition to supersonic flow at an altitude of about 4 solar radii from the photosphere (surface); but the transition (or "sonic point") now appears to be much lower, perhaps only 1 solar radius above the photosphere, suggesting that some additional mechanism accelerates the solar wind away from the Sun. The acceleration of the fast wind is still not understood and cannot be fully explained by Parker's theory. The gravitational and electromagnetic explanation for this acceleration is, however, detailed in an earlier paper by 1970 Nobel laureate for Physics, Hannes Alfven.

In 2018, NASA launched the Parker Solar Probe, named in honor of Eugene Parker, on a mission to study the structure and dynamics of the solar corona, in an attempt to understand the mechanisms that cause particles to be heated and accelerated as solar wind. During its seven-year mission, the probe will make twenty-four orbits of the sun, passing further into the corona with each orbit's perihelion, ultimately passing within 0.04 astronomical units of the sun's surface. It is the first NASA spacecraft named for a living person, and Parker himself, at age 91, was on hand to observe the launch.

The Sun's corona, or extended outer layer, is a region of plasma that is heated to over a million kelvin. As a result of thermal collisions, the particles within the inner corona have a range and distribution of speeds described by a Maxwellian distribution. The mean velocity of these particles is about 145 km/s, which is well below the solar escape velocity of 618 km/s. However, a few of the particles achieve energies sufficient to reach the terminal velocity of 400 km/s, which allows them to feed the solar wind. At the same temperature, electrons, due to their much smaller mass, reach escape velocity and build up an electric field that further accelerates ions away from the Sun.

The fast solar wind originates from coronal holes, which are funnel-like regions of open field lines in the Sun's magnetic field. Such open lines are particularly prevalent around the Sun's magnetic poles. The plasma source is small magnetic fields created by convection cells in the solar atmosphere. These fields confine the plasma and transport it into the narrow necks of the coronal funnels, which are located only 20,000 kilometers above the photosphere. The plasma is released into the funnel when these magnetic field lines reconnect.

When a CME impacts the Earth's magnetosphere, it temporarily deforms the Earth's magnetic field, changing the direction of compass needles and inducing large electrical ground currents in Earth itself; this is called a geomagnetic storm and it is a global phenomenon.CME impacts can induce magnetic reconnection in Earth's magnetotail (the midnight side of the magnetosphere); this launches protons and electrons downward toward Earth's atmosphere, where they form the aurora.

Where the solar wind intersects with a planet that has a well-developed magnetic field (such as Earth, Jupiter or Saturn), the particles are deflected by the Lorentz force. This region, known as the magnetosphere, causes the particles to travel around the planet rather than bombarding the atmosphere or surface. The magnetosphere is roughly shaped like a hemisphere on the side facing the Sun, then is drawn out in a long wake on the opposite side. The boundary of this region is called the magnetopause, and some of the particles are able to penetrate the magnetosphere through this region by partial reconnection of the magnetic field lines.

From the European Space Agency's Cluster mission, a new study has taken place that proposes that it is easier for the solar wind to infiltrate the magnetosphere than previously believed. A group of scientists directly observed the existence of certain waves in the solar wind that were not expected. A recent study shows that these waves enable incoming charged particles of solar wind to breach the magnetopause. This suggests that the magnetic bubble forms more as a filter than a continuous barrier. This latest discovery occurred through the distinctive arrangement of the four identical Cluster spacecraft, which fly in a controlled configuration through near-Earth space. As they sweep from the magnetosphere into interplanetary space and back again, the fleet provides exceptional three-dimensional insights on the phenomena that connect the sun to Earth.

Earth itself is largely protected from the solar wind by its magnetic field, which deflects most of the charged particles; however some of the charged particles are trapped in the Van Allen radiation belt. A smaller number of particles from the solar wind manage to travel, as though on an electromagnetic energy transmission line, to the Earth's upper atmosphere and ionosphere in the auroral zones. The only time the solar wind is observable on the Earth is when it is strong enough to produce phenomena such as the aurora and geomagnetic storms. Bright auroras strongly heat the ionosphere, causing its plasma to expand into the magnetosphere, increasing the size of the plasma geosphere and injecting atmospheric matter into the solar wind. Geomagnetic storms result when the pressure of plasmas contained inside the magnetosphere is sufficiently large to inflate and thereby distort the geomagnetic field.


Dr. Kristine Asch
Phone: +49-(0)511-643-3324
Fax: +49-(0)511-643-3782