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New Study Explains How Solar Flares Produce So Much Energy In Mere Seconds

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Solar flares are some of the most powerful explosions in our solar system. However, despite having as much energy as a hundred billion atomic bombs going off at once, physicists still don’t know how these sudden eruptions on the Sun can send particles to Earth, which is nearly 93 million miles away, in less than an hour.

Now, in a study that came out on June 8 in Nature, scientists at the New Jersey Institute of Technology (NJIT) have found the exact spot where solar flares speed up charged particles to almost the speed of light.

According to NJIT’s Expanded Owens Valley Solar Array (EOVSA) radio telescope observations of an X-class solar flare in 2017, the latest findings unveil a highly efficient particle accelerator located in the tip of the brightest eruption’s “cusp region,” where ambient plasma is transformed into high-energy electrons during the flare.

According to researchers, the finding of the region, which is near twice the size of Earth, could help pave the way for studying fundamental particle acceleration processes that occur throughout the universe.

The findings of the study, according to Gregory Fleishman, corresponding author of the research, “help explain the long-standing mystery of how solar flares can produce so much energy in mere seconds.”

“The flare unleashes its power in a much vaster region of the Sun than expected by the classic model of solar flares.

“Although others have postulated this must happen, this is the first time the specific size, shape, and location of this key region has been identified, and the efficiency of the energy conversion to particle acceleration inside the flare has been measured.”

EOVSA’s comprehensive images of the flare and changes in the Sun’s magnetic field — captured at hundreds of radio frequencies at once — first gave the NJIT team a lead on the location, according to separate studies published in Science and Nature Astronomy in 2020.

“Our recent studies suggested the flare cusp could be the location where such high-energy electrons are produced, but we weren’t certain,” explains Bin Chen, one of the paper’s co-authors.

“We had originally uncovered a magnetic bottle-like structure at the site that contained an overwhelmingly large number of electrons compared to anywhere else in the flare,” adds Chen, “but now with the new measurements of this study, we can more confidently say this is the flare’s particle accelerator.”

On September 10, 2017, the team used EOVSA’s unique microwave imaging capabilities to quantify the energy spectrum of electrons at hundreds of places during an X-class solar flare generated by a reconfiguration of magnetic field lines along the Sun’s surface.

“EOVSA’s spectral imaging gave us a comprehensive map of the flare’s thermal plasma as it evolved second-by-second,” says NJIT research professor and co-author Gelu Nita, “But to our surprise, what we found was a mysterious hole in the thermal plasma map that began developing at the flare’s cusp.”

“More than that, as thermal particles in the region disappeared, the hole was then densely filled with non-thermal, high-energy particles.”

The team’s research revealed an exceptionally efficient energy conversion process within the particle accelerator of a solar flare, in which strong energy from the Sun’s magnetic fields is swiftly released and converted to kinetic energy within the region.

They “wondered how efficient this energy conversion process would be … how many particles in this area would be accelerated beyond the explosion’s thermal energy?” Sijie Yu, a study co-author and assistant research professor at NJIT, adds to the discussion.

“Using extreme ultraviolet data of the Sun, we confirmed that virtually no particles remained inside the region at thermal energies below a few million Kelvin,” adds the researchers, “consistent with the EOVSA measurement that the particles had all been accelerated to non-thermal energies greater than 20 keV, or nearly 100 million Kelvin.”

These new findings, according to the team, could enable scientists to study fundamental topics in particle physics that are impossible to study on Earth, as well as provide new insights into how high-energy particles from the Sun might harm Earth during future space weather events.

“We still want to investigate the physical mechanism driving particle acceleration in solar flares. But future studies must account for what we now know about these enormous explosions — both the main energy release at the cusp region and the 100% efficiency at which charged particle acceleration occurs,” Fleishman says.

“These findings call for a major revision to the models we use to study solar flares and their impact on Earth.”

Image Credit: Getty

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