Like the flash of a garden snake darting through the grass, an undulating stream of plasma shoots across the sun in a new time-lapse video from the European Space Agency's (ESA) Solar Orbiter.
The phenomenon is caused by a stream of cool plasma flowing along a long filament of the sun's magnetic field. Relatively cool plasma, that is — plasma is a state of matter that is so hot that its electrons are stripped away, leaving it with an electrical charge. This electrical charge enables it to interact with magnetic fields, including those in the sun's atmosphere.
The images were captured by the Solar Orbiter on September 5, according to ESA. The orbiter is a satellite that was launched in February 2020 in order to observe the sun from a little over 26 million miles (42 million kilometers) away. Though the "snake" traverses the sun's surface in just a few seconds in the new time-lapse video, it actually took three hours to make the journey. That doesn't mean it was a slowpoke: The distances involved were so vast that the plasma stream must have been moving at 378,000 mph (105,000 kmh), according to ESA. The undulating motion is due to warping in the solar magnetic field.
"You're getting plasma flowing from one side to the other but the magnetic field is really twisted. So you're getting this change in direction because we're looking down on a twisted structure," David Long of the Mullard Space Science Laboratory (UCL) in the U.K., who is heading up the investigation into the phenomenon, said in a statement.
Researchers are intrigued by the new observation because the snake originated in a region of the sun that later erupted in a coronal mass ejection (CME). CMEs are events that shoot billions of tons of plasma into space. The charged particles from these CMEs can sometimes interact with Earth's atmosphere, causing electromagnetic disruptions to some technologies and lighting up the skies with colorful auroras.
The plasma from the snake-adjacent CME also passed over NASA's Parker Solar Probe, a car-size spacecraft that is the first ever to enter the sun's atmosphere. The probe is still orbiting near the sun, making observations of CMEs and other solar phenomena. The Parker Solar Probe can measure the contents of a CME, and combining this data with the Solar Orbiter's observations has the potential to reveal new findings about solar physics, according to ESA. This could help improve predictions of how space weather caused by the sun's periodic eruptions will impact Earth.
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Stephanie Pappas is a contributing writer for Live Science, covering topics ranging from geoscience to archaeology to the human brain and behavior. She was previously a senior writer for Live Science but is now a freelancer based in Denver, Colorado, and regularly contributes to Scientific American and The Monitor, the monthly magazine of the American Psychological Association. Stephanie received a bachelor's degree in psychology from the University of South Carolina and a graduate certificate in science communication from the University of California, Santa Cruz.