NASA discovery: solar storms don't always travel in straight lines

Once again, Nature surprises us with a “curve ball”. It makes sense to think that a flare/CME off the sun would head in a straight line outward. But as we see, Nature doesn’t always follow preconceived notions or our “common sense”.  – Anthony

From Science @ NASA: Solar Storms can Change Directions, Surprising Forecasters

Solar storms don’t always travel in a straight line. But once they start heading in our direction, they can accelerate rapidly, gathering steam for a harder hit on Earth’s magnetic field.

So say researchers who have been using data from NASA’s twin STEREO spacecraft to unravel the 3D structure of solar storms. Their findings are presented in today’s issue of Nature Communications.

Zig Zag (CME, 550px)

A coronal mass ejection (CME) observed by STEREO on Dec. 12, 2008. [larger image]

“This really surprised us,” says co-author Peter Gallagher of Trinity College in Dublin, Ireland. “Solar coronal mass ejections (CMEs) can start out going one way—and then turn in a different direction.”

The result was so strange, at first they thought they’d done something wrong. After double- and triple-checking their work on dozens of eruptions, however, the team knew they were onto something.

“Our 3D visualizations clearly show that solar storms can be deflected from high solar latitudes and end up hitting planets they might otherwise have missed,” says lead author Jason Byrne, a graduate student at the Trinity Center for High Performance Computing.

Zig Zag (CME model, 200px)

A 3D model of an actual CME based on multiscale processing of STEREO data. [9MB movie]

The key to their analysis was an innovative computing technique called “multiscale image processing.” Gallagher explains:

“‘Multiscale processing’ means taking an image and sorting the things in it according to size. Suppose you’re interested in race cars. If you have a photo that contains a bowl of fruit, a person, and a dragster, you could use multiscale processing to single out the race car and study its characteristics.”

In medical research, multiscale processing has been used to identify individual nuclei in crowded pictures of cells. In astronomy, it comes in handy for picking galaxies out of a busy star field. Gallagher and colleagues are the first to refine and use it in the realm of solar physics.

“We applied the multiscale technique to coronagraph data from NASA’s twin STEREO spacecraft,” Gallagher continues. “Our computer was able to look at starry images cluttered with streamers and bright knots of solar wind and zero in on the CMEs.”

STEREO-A and STEREO–B are widely separated and can see CMEs from different points of view. This allowed the team to create fully-stereoscopic models of the storm clouds and track them as they billowed away from the sun.

One of the first things they noticed was how CMEs trying to go “up”—out of the plane of the solar system and away from the planets—are turned back down again. Gallagher confesses that they had to “crack the books” and spend some time at the white board to fully understand the phenomenon. In the end, the explanation was simple:

Zig Zag (bar magnet, 200px)

The magnetic field of a bar magnet.

The sun’s global magnetic field, which is shaped like a bar magnet, guides the wayward CMEs back toward the sun’s equator. When the clouds reach low latitudes, they get caught up in the solar wind and head out toward the planets—”like a cork bobbing along a river,” says Gallagher.

Once a CME is embedded in the solar wind, it can experience significant acceleration. “This is a result of aerodynamic drag,” says Byrne. “If the wind is blowing fast enough, it drags the CME along with it—something we actually observed in the STEREO data.”

Past studies from other missions had revealed tantalizing hints of this CME-redirection and acceleration process, but STEREO is the first to see it unfold from nearly beginning to end.

“The ability to reconstruct the path of a solar storm through space could be of great benefit to forecasters of space weather at Earth,” notes Alex Young, STEREO Senior Scientist at the Goddard Space Flight Center. “Knowing when a CME will arrive is crucial for predicting the onset of geomagnetic storms.”

“Furthermore,” he says, “the image processing techniques developed by the Trinity team in collaboration with NASA Goddard can be used in applications ranging from surveillance to medical diagnostics.”

To learn more about zig-zagging CMEs and the advanced computing techniques used to track them, read “Propagation of an Earth-directed coronal mass ejection in three dimensions” by Byrne et al in the Sept. 21, 2010, issue of Nature Communications.

Author: Dr. Tony Phillips | Credit: Science@NASA

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32 thoughts on “NASA discovery: solar storms don't always travel in straight lines

  1. The position of the CME would therefore also cause a proportional loss of componet mater. The higher/lower the CME the more loss of oppositely charged componet mater to Solar magnetic and gravitational attraction back to the surface. CME’s on or near the Solar center would therefore tend to have greater content and impact on the planets?

  2. What? Charged particles moving through a magnetic field don’t move in a straight line? Gee… that is a head-scratcher.
    Honestly, I had never given it the slightest thought until reading this article, but I’d be very surprised if CMEs did travel straight out from the photosphere. I shoulda been a rocket scientist…

  3. Perhaps a bit of ‘it’s seems obvious in hindsight’, but the solar particles reaching earth get deflected by earth’s magnetic field. following the lines of the magnetic field , and directed towards the poles for the beautiful northern and southern lights. Thus the direction of the CME is being altered.
    Since the sun also has a magnetic field, why wouldn’t one think that the particles moving away from the sun would have a tendency the follow in the same way, being directed in part by the lines of the magentic field?

  4. Awesome image! I’m really beginning to like STEREO.
    CMEs are great, so long as they’re not headed my way ;o)

  5. >>But once they start heading in our direction, they can accelerate rapidly, gathering steam for a harder hit on Earth’s magnetic field.<<
    How can they accelerate once they start heading in our direction?? According to the laws of the conservation of mass and energy, to do this they would either have to pull in energy from an outside source or would have to convert some of their mass to energy.

  6. Just to stir it up a little (just imagine a circle):
    Gravity is the sum:
    G=sin y + cos y ; G=1+0
    Which means that the resultant force will be equal to 1, or almost one, as 0.981
    Then, it follows, that when forces are arranged each at an angle above the horizontal being equal to less than 90 degrees, the resultant force will be composed of two vertical vectors: One from the periphery to the center (Gravity) and the other, from the center to the periphery (EM field).
    Thus the resultant central vector equals a PERMANENT MAGNET, where its attraction is Gravity (to the center) and its repulsion is the EM field (to the periphery)

    http://tallbloke.wordpress.com/2010/09/17/gravity-the-science-is-notsettled/#comment-2506

  7. @Madman- The particles that make up the CME are being accelerated by the faster-outflowing solar wind. There’s no trickery going on here.

  8. Madman2001 says:
    September 24, 2010 at 9:19 am
    >>But once they start heading in our direction, they can accelerate rapidly, gathering steam for a harder hit on Earth’s magnetic field.<<
    “How can they accelerate once they start heading in our direction?? According to the laws of the conservation of mass and energy, to do this they would either have to pull in energy from an outside source or would have to convert some of their mass to energy.
    The immense energy of the explosive force of the CME means that a proportion of the atoms will be smashed into their components parts and a statistically small but important proportion of these relativistic particles will be accelerated close to the speed of light. As their mass increases, local gravitation effects from these hight speed fragments will tend to attract the slower particle, thus accelerating the whole of the CME cloud towards its target planet.
    Simples???

  9. Jason Harvey says:
    September 24, 2010 at 9:55 am
    Acceleration it is not the same as velocity, it requires an additional push, like in a synchrotron.

  10. Vuk etc. says:
    September 24, 2010 at 9:18 am
    Like in the old Chinese proverb…..”Wait at your front door…..” (It’s a joke)

  11. I’m only at the hobby level of astronomy, but really, NASA people actually have thought storms travel in straight lines as in not being involved in chaotic and complex systems that decide their paths? OMG it really is worse then I thought!

  12. BTW: Chaos is the ethics of a liberal mind, while universe’ s law and order is the ethics of a conservative mind.

  13. If flowing ions could not be focused by electromagnetic means the original CRT TV’s would never have worked, the fact that beams of electrons can be focused to the point of HD clarity and color differentiation, means the process is very simple and natural forces should be able to do a lot of it.
    The deflection is a result of the modulation of the background magnetic fields, as the homopolar field effects of the sun move flows of ions onto the magnetic sheet, (which is why it exists anyway) being able to couple through the magnetically permeable materials in the planets just assists the CME’s arrival and passage through planets when in their general area anyway.
    Following a conductive pathway is what magnetic fields do best, what remains open for discussion is whether CME’s are guided passively, or actively pulled by the planets, more or less when they line up heliocentrically.

  14. Richard Holle says:
    September 24, 2010 at 12:19 pm
    Following a conductive pathway is what magnetic fields do best, what remains open for discussion is whether CME’s are guided passively, or actively pulled by the planets, more or less when they line up heliocentrically…...PERIOD.
    Though it may be caused, also, by the “Bubble-Gum Effect”, whent it blows out on the blowers’ face (just kidding for relaxing..)

  15. Richard Holle,
    Your prediction from early July:
    “If I am correct in the electromagnetic nature or the production of this increased activity, there will be a significant chance of a solar storm that will disrupt power grid systems of Europe and North America ON the 21st of September. (pinpoint date forecast for Lief’s benefit) ”
    Comments please.

  16. Dave Bob says:
    September 24, 2010 at 1:46 pm
    “For some reason, that first color image makes me want to order a martini!
    Thanks! PMSL…:-))

  17. Tom in Florida says:
    September 24, 2010 at 1:04 pm
    In past episodes involving power grid outages, and heliocentric conjunctions, the multiple planet conjunctions at peak coupling were with in 2 degrees of in line, the magnetic induction from solar fields caused resultant shifts in the geomagnetic fields, accompanied by cascades of free electrons down from the poles, that were able to induce currents into the ground buses of the grids, that overcame the magnetic reluctance of the bandpass of the transformers, out of phase with the 50 or 60 cycle AC Power.
    IF the power companies have learned and adapted by separating the ground buss connections at transformer switching stations, then the chances of a resultant outage would now be lower than before. There has been some discussion in the literature from the utility companies, that this was the method to be tried, after the last heavy outage, on the Niagara Falls grid system.
    This time ODDS were good that it could happen again, but we dodged the bullet, if they were more lined up by declination maybe a better chance of power disruption.
    http://space.jpl.nasa.gov/cgi-bin/wspace?tbody=399&vbody=10&month=9&day=21&year=2010&hour=18&minute=00&fovmul=1&rfov=10&bfov=30&porbs=1&brite=1&showsc=1
    “”there will be a significant chance of a solar storm”” in IPCC speak is 75%+ chance.
    The Earth ward face of the sun is showing several CME areas, now we are past peak conjunction and the tropical storms are increasing again, with Rapid intensification rates.
    http://www.ssd.noaa.gov/goes/flt/t1/flash-avn.html
    I fully expect the levels of global tropical storm production to increase again, maybe above some of the total daily ACE values of the past month. The basic presented idea that the peaks in daily ACE values would be during the periods of lunar declinational culmination, has held true.
    With the consideration of the declination of the outer planets South of the Earth’s ecliptic plane, greater intensity is occurring at the Southern most culminations, than the Northern ones. [Something new I learned this season to add to the mix of things to evaluate further.]
    Where I went wrong was to assume the outer planet influences would have an effect lasting longer than 5 to 6 days either side of the conjunction, just because there were so many at once. This was [a mistaken expectation of extension] past the stated premises in my original hypothesis.
    This year was my first attempt at forecasting hurricanes in an area I did not have real data for, based solely on extended conjecture from first principals seen in the data I have processed. With additional data and further study I expect to do better in the future.

  18. Richard Holle says:
    September 24, 2010 at 12:19 pm
    “…Following a conductive pathway is what magnetic fields do best, what remains open for discussion is whether CME’s are guided passively, or actively pulled by the planets, more or less when they line up heliocentrically.”
    Perhaps like lightening between clouds and ground here on Earth, the sun needs an highly conductive pathway, as would be provided by the observed flux ropes, before the CME ‘pops’. Given a ‘choice’ electricity always will always follow the path of least resistance.
    According to Solen:- “A small trans equatorial, recurrent coronal hole (CH423) will be in an Earth facing position on September 24.”
    http://www.solen.info/solar/

  19. Acceleration of the CME must mean that additional force is being applied to the charged particles (ions & electrons) that consitute the CME.

  20. Aha! So the Sun demonstrates it’s particle beam accelerator guidance system.
    A sure sign of intelligent life right under our noses. Who said life can only exist on planets?
    Get Steven Hawking in here, please.
    We have serious questions that only the distinguished Professor can answer.

  21. Vuk etc. says:
    September 24, 2010 at 9:18 am
    Hey Vuks, this time hoping he does. lol
    I thought there was an acceleration due to heating, and the IMF well as it propagates outward the waves elongate and if if the CME rolls out on an inward IMF and during its course hits an outward IMF it might not follow a straight path or something like that.

  22. “But once they start heading in our direction, they can accelerate rapidly, gathering steam for a harder hit on Earth’s magnetic field.”
    What a laugh! Earth just SUCKS those to us, that is how the acceleration occurs.
    Sounds more like a crafty setup for future scares aimed at the gullible public. Now any CMB can be a headline terror story.

  23. Rbateman said
    Quote
    particle beam accelerator guidance system
    Unquote
    How do they work. Is not science based upon replicating observations?

  24. Vuk etc. says:
    September 24, 2010 at 9:18 am
    I am waiting for doc Svalgaards reaction. ( nothing new there, it’s been known since 1976 )
    Since at least 1971. See Figure 1 of http://www.leif.org/research/A%20View%20of%20Solar%20Magnetic%20Fields,%20the%20Solar%20Corona,%20and%20the%20Solar%20Wind%20in%20Three%20Dimensions.pdf
    The plasma would tend to be guided by the magnetic field near the Sun. Further from the Sun, the plasma controls the magnetic field.

  25. Does anyone have a crude estimate of the energies involved? Both direct impact (mass) hitting and being absorbed by the earth and electro-motive effects (similar to the windings of a motor under load)? How many joules (how much heating), order-of-magnitude do you think? Does it vary with the earth’s magnetic field strength and/or orientation?
    Can we measure this using differential measurements of, say, the moon’s surface? Have these experiments been done using the instruments we left on the moon?

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