WASHINGTON: Astronomers have seen for the first time how solar flares act as powerful accelerators flinging radiation and particles deep into space at close to the speed of light in a matter of seconds.
The new observations, reported in the journal Science, will help scientists predict space weather events that can cause power blackouts, disrupt communications systems, and damage spacecraft.
“Solar flares are very enigmatic things, they are able to produce huge amounts of energy and accelerate particles in a remarkably short time,” study author Professor Dale Gary of New Jersey Institute said.
“If we understand how solar flares work, we have a better opportunity to understand a little bit more about how they’re formed, and can look for signatures that allow us to understand whether a flare’s going to produce a big particle event.”
Solar flares — the most powerful explosions in the solar system — are generated by a sudden release of energy as magnetic field lines in the Sun’s atmosphere snap and reconfigure through a process called magnetic reconnection.
The authors used the new enhanced capabilities of the Very Large Array (VLA) Radio Telescope in New Mexico to study a solar flare that erupted on March 3, 2012 in unprecedented detail, producing over 40,000 individual images per second across a broad range of radio frequencies.
When combined with ultraviolet and X-ray observations from other telescopes, the researchers found the particles were being accelerated in a region of the solar flare called the termination shock, where fast-flowing plasma crashes into dense stationary magnetic loops creating the shock.