Science For All | What are picoflare jets? 

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Updated - September 08, 2023 11:27 am IST

Published - September 05, 2023 05:35 pm IST

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Researchers studying the findings of the Solar Orbiter Aircraft, a joint mission by the European Space Agency and the U.S. space agency NASA, recently announced that they have detected small jets of charged particles intermittently expelled from the sun’s outer atmosphere, at supersonic speeds for 20-100 seconds. These are called picoflare jets. 

According to researchers, picoflare jets may be a source of solar winds, which have important effects on the solar system at large as well as on the earth’s magnetic field. Solar winds are high-speed streams of charged particles from the sun, but their exact origin is unclear. Coronal holes, part of sun’s outer atmosphere with magnetic field lines opening outwards, are already known to be the source region of solar winds. 

Solar physicist Laxmi Pradeep Chitta of the Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research in Germany is the lead scientist of the team that published the research on picoflare jets. 

Scientists used the Extreme Ultraviolet Imager of the Solar Orbiter Spacecraft to observe a coronal hole. The spacecraft took pictures of picoflare jets in March 2022 when it moved past the sun’s south pole, Nature reported. The high-resolution images reveal dark streaks that are visible for 20-100 seconds before disappearing. Each streak is around a few hundred kilometres long and emits as much energy as 3,000–4,000 households in the U.S. consume over an entire year, the report quoted Dr. Chitta as saying. 

These small-scale picoflare jets were observed within emissions from the coronal hole under observation. While they lasted only a few dozen seconds, scientists calculated that they provide enough energy to supply a considerable fraction of solar winds. 

“Pico” is an order of magnitude that denotes 10-12, or one trillionth of a unit. These jets from the sun are named so because they carry approximately one-trillionth the energy of the largest flares the sun is capable of producing, scientists have said. 

The discovery is important because strong gusts of solar winds, while creating beautiful auroras in polar areas, are capable of disrupting the earth’s magnetic field as well as damaging electronics in satellites in space and in circuits on the ground. 

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