A solar flare so powerful that it acts like a cosmic vacuum cleaner, removing interplanetary dust in its path: That’s what NASA’s Parker probe observed, confirming a 20-year-old theory and opening up new perspectives for space weather forecasting. The Parker Solar Probe (PSP).
Image credit: NASA GSFC/CIL/Brian Monroe
On September 5, 2022, NASA’s Parker spacecraft experienced one of the most powerful coronal mass ejections (CMEs) ever. A CME is a massive eruption of plasma and energy from the solar corona. These phenomena can disrupt satellites, communications and even power grids on Earth.
Guillermo Stenborg, an astrophysicist at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory, said this observation confirms a theory proposed in 2003. According to this theory, CMEs can interact with interplanetary dust orbiting our star and even take it with them. Interplanetary dust consists of tiny particles from asteroids, comets and even planets.
The interaction between CME and dust was observed as a decrease in brightness in images from the Parker probe’s WISPR camera. To locate this event, the team had to calculate the average brightness of WISPR images across several similar orbits.
Parker’s observations were crucial to this discovery. According to the researchers, they could also shed light on related phenomena further down in the corona, such as coronal darkenings caused by low-density areas that often occur after CME.
Guillermo Stenborg and his team believe that dust suppression may only be possible with the most powerful CMEs. Still, understanding the physics behind this interaction could have implications for predicting space weather.
The Parker Probe was developed as part of NASA’s Living With a Star program to explore aspects of the Sun-Earth system that directly impact life and society.