Tiny jets may be the secret to solar wind, study finds

Credit: ESA & NASA/Solar Orbiter/EUI Team; acknowledgement: Lakshmi Pradeep Chitta, Max Planck Institute for solar system Research, CC BY-SA 3.0 IGO

The sun constantly sends out a stream of charged particles, which we call solar wind. This wind travels across space and sometimes bumps into Earth’s magnetic field, creating beautiful displays like the Northern and Southern Lights.

Scientists have long been puzzled about exactly how and where the solar wind starts. Thanks to a spacecraft called the Solar Orbiter, run by ESA and NASA, we may be a step closer to answering these questions.

Meet the Solar Orbiter and its Super Camera

The Solar Orbiter is equipped with some super-advanced cameras and instruments, including one called the Extreme Ultraviolet Imager (EUI). In late March, this camera took some incredibly detailed pictures of the sun’s south pole.

For the first time, it captured numerous tiny jets shooting out from the sun’s outer atmosphere. These mini jets seem to be made of the same stuff as solar wind—charged particles called plasma.

What makes these jets special is how fast they happen and how quickly they shoot out the plasma.

Each jet lasts only between 20 and 100 seconds and zooms out at about 223,693 miles per hour! Lakshmi Pradeep Chitta, one of the scientists involved in the study, said the camera’s extraordinary detail is the only reason they could even see these tiny jets.

Changing Our Understanding of Solar Wind

Before these findings, scientists believed that the solar wind probably started from areas called coronal holes. These are spots where the sun’s magnetic field extends far out into space, allowing plasma to escape along them.

But these new jets tell us something different: instead of a steady, uniform flow, the solar wind may actually come out in quick, intermittent bursts.

These bursts may be more common than we thought, indicating that these jets could very well be a main source of solar wind.

These mini jets aren’t the only things happening on the sun, though. There are also enormous solar flares and much smaller events called nanoflares.

But even though these new jets are much less powerful than other solar events, their frequent occurrence suggests they play a big role in creating the solar wind.

Why This Matters Beyond the Sun

The Solar Orbiter’s journey isn’t over. Right now, it’s still hovering around the sun’s equator, but it will eventually move to get a better look at the sun’s poles.

The information it gathers could offer new insights not just about our own sun, but also other stars.

That’s because what happens on our sun is likely happening on other stars too, making this discovery a big deal for understanding not just our solar system, but potentially others as well.

So, the next time you see a beautiful aurora lighting up the sky, you can thank the sun’s solar wind—and perhaps also these newly discovered tiny jets—for the spectacular show.

The study was published in Science.