Donald Savage Headquarters, Washington, DC (Phone: 202/358-1547


February 4, 1999

Bill Steigerwald Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, MD (Phone: 301/286-5017) RELEASE: 99-11 SOHO SPACECRAFT DETECTS SOURCE OF HIGH-SPEED SOLAR "WIND" Solving a long-standing solar mystery, scientists have discovered the source of fountains of electrified gas that flow from the Sun like water gushing through cracks in a dam. Called the high-speed solar wind, this gas flows out at two million miles per hour from the edges of honeycomb-shaped patterns of magnetic fields at the surface of the Sun. American and European scientists detected the source using the NASA/European Space Agency's Solar and Heliospheric Observatory (SOHO) spacecraft. The nature and origin of the solar wind is one of the main mysteries SOHO was designed to solve. "The search for the source of the solar wind has been like the hunt for the source of the Nile," said Dr. Don Hassler of the Southwest Research Institute, Boulder, CO, lead author of the paper, published in the Feb. 5 issue of SCIENCE magazine. "For thirty years, scientists have observed high-speed solar wind coming from regions in the solar atmosphere with open magnetic-field lines, called coronal holes. However, only recently, with the observations from SOHO, have we been able to measure the detailed structure of this source region inside coronal holes." Scientists have long thought that the solar wind flows from coronal holes. What is new is the discovery that these flows are concentrated in specific patches at the edges of the honeycombshaped magnetic fields. Just below the surface of the Sun there are large convection cells, and each cell has a magnetic field associated with it. "If one thinks of these cells as paving stones in a patio, then the solar wind is breaking through like grass around the edges, concentrated in the corners where the paving stones meet," said Dr. Helen Mason, of the University of Cambridge,

England, co-author of the paper. "However, at speeds starting at 20,000 mph at the surface and accelerating to over two million mph, the solar wind 'grows' much faster than grass." The research will lead to better understanding of the highspeed solar wind, a stream of electrified gas that affects the Earth's space environment. The solar wind comes in two varieties: high speed and low speed. The low-speed solar wind moves at roughly a million miles per hour, while the high-speed wind is even faster, up to two million miles per hour. As it flows past Earth, the solar wind can cause dramatic changes in the shape and structure of the Earth's magnetic field, variations in which can affect satellites and disrupt communications and power systems on Earth. The Solar Ultraviolet Measurements of Emitted Radiation (SUMER) spectrometer instrument on SOHO detected the solar wind by observing the ultraviolet spectrum (a separation of light into its component colors, or wavelengths) over a large area of the solar north polar region. By analyzing light this way, astronomers learn a great deal about the object emitting the light, such as its temperature, chemical composition and motion. The hot gas in the solar-wind source region emits light at certain ultraviolet wavelengths. When the hot gas in the solar wind flows toward Earth, the wavelengths of the ultraviolet light emitted become shorter, a phenomenon called Doppler shift. This is similar to the way an ambulance siren appears to change tone as it speeds by. When the ambulance moves toward us, its sound is compressed to a shorter wavelength, resulting in a higher tone. As it moves away, its sound is stretched to a longer wavelength, resulting in a lower tone. Motion toward Earth, away from the solar surface, was detected as a shortening of the wavelength, and identified as the beginning of the solar wind. "The identification of the detailed structure of the source region of the fast solar wind is an important step in solving the solar wind acceleration problem. We can now focus our attention on the plasma (hot electrified gas) conditions and the dynamical processes seen in the corners of the magnetic field structures," said Dr. Klaus Wilhelm of the Max-Planck-Institut fuer Aeronomie in Lindau, Germany, also co-author of the SCIENCE paper. SOHO operates at a special vantage point about one million

miles out in space between the Sun and Earth. SOHO, launched in 1995, is a project of international collaboration between the European Space Agency and NASA, and is operated from NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, MD. - end NOTE TO EDITORS: an image to support this story is available on the Internet at: FTP://PAO.GSFC.NASA.GOV/newsmedia/SOHO/SW