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Solar-wind structure

Owens, M. (2020) Solar-wind structure. In: Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Physics. Oxford University Press.

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To link to this item DOI: 10.1093/acrefore/9780190871994.013.19


The hot solar atmosphere continually expands out into space to form the solar wind, which drags with it the Sun’s magnetic field. This creates a cavity in the interstellar medium, extending far past the outer planets, within which the solar magnetic-field dominates. While the physical mechanisms by which the solar atmosphere is heated are still debated, the resulting solar wind can be readily understood in terms of the pressure difference between the hot, dense solar atmosphere and the cold, tenuous interstellar medium. This results in an accelerating solar-wind profile which becomes supersonic long before it reaches Earth orbit. The large-scale structure of the magnetic field carried by the solar wind is that of an Archimedean spiral, owing to the radial solar-wind flow away from the Sun and the rotation of the magnetic footpoints with the solar surface. Within this relatively simple picture, however, is a range of substructure, on all observable time and spatial scales. Solar-wind flows are largely bimodal in character. “Fast” wind comes from open magnetic-field regions, which have a single connection to the solar surface. “Slow” wind, on the other hand, appears to come from the vicinity of closed magnetic field regions, which have both ends connected to the Sun. Interaction of fast and slow wind leads to patterns of solar-wind compression and expansion which sweep past Earth. Within this relatively stable structure of flows, huge episodic eruptions of solar material further perturb conditions. At the smaller scales, turbulent eddies create unpredictable variations in solar-wind conditions. These solar-wind structures are of great interest as they give rise to space weather that can adversely affect space- and ground-based technologies, as well as pose a threat to humans in space.

Item Type:Book or Report Section
Divisions:Faculty of Science > School of Mathematical, Physical and Computational Sciences > Department of Meteorology
ID Code:89323
Publisher:Oxford University Press

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