Earth-shaking phenomenon flare out from the sun, and we’ll know a lot know more about these spectacles following the mission of a space launch from Cape Canaveral on February 7.
At the helm of part of that mission is Gary Zank, director of the Center for Space Plasma and Aeronomic Research at the University of Alabama at Huntsville.
“This truly is the golden age for solar physics,” says Zank, speaking of two companion missions — one launched earlier by NASA, the Parker Solar Probe, and one blasting off this month, headed by the European Space Agency, a mission called Solar Orbiter. They study two separate types of solar wind — one occurring around the equator of the sun and another type at the poles.
Solar Orbiter will fly over the sun’s poles, exploring for the first time in detail the huge holes in the sun’s outer surface that are located at the poles.
“The acceleration mechanisms for these two classes of winds are thought to be quite different,” Zank says. “So, SO complements PSP in that the combination provides a full 360-degree coverage of the sun and allows us to investigate the different physical processes thought to be responsible for forming the solar wind. This will allow us to answer that critical question for both missions. This makes the combination of the two spacecraft enormously exciting, and it’s why I am very happy to be on both teams.”
Zank is co-primary investigator on a team overseeing the magnetometer on board — an instrument that will measure the magnetic fields in the solar wind and corona.
On PSP, he is involved in the plasma data. UAH already receives large streams of data from PSP and it will also do so from SO.
Burning at 2 million degrees Fahrenheit, the sun throws off plasma particles that stream in solar winds throughout the solar system.
If not for the Earth’s magnetic field, which acts as a shield, we’d be irradiated by the outbursts, which bend around the Earth and go on to create and control the giant envelope of plasma that surrounds the whole solar system and influences the planets within it.
Solar winds shift on 11-year cycles, and over much greater periods they figure into ice ages and their reversal into melt and Biblical floods.
“These are the two most important missions of discovery to solve a question that has been with us since the dawn of the space age,” says Zank. “How and from where does the solar wind originate and what gives it its unique characteristics? Very exciting!”