far side solar flare
July 10, 2014

MESSENGER Data Helps NASA Scientists Get Closer Look At Solar Flares

redOrbit Staff & Wire Reports - Your Universe Online

In order to better understand what powers solar flares, NASA officials announced on Thursday that they were turning to the MESSENGER spacecraft orbiting Mercury in order to get a closer look at these intense bursts of radiation resulting from sunspot-related magnetic energy release.

As the US space agency explained, it can be difficult understanding some of the processes on the sun when you are forced to rely solely upon the particles and light that manage to reach the Earth’s vicinity some 93 million miles away.

As a result, scientists there are using MESSENGER, which can be as close as just 28 million miles away from the sun, in order to detect short-lived solar neutrons that are created in solar flares. These solar neutrons last approximately 15 minutes, and the distance they are able to cover depends upon their speed. Slower neutrons typically do not make it far enough for particle detectors in orbit around Earth to detect them.

However, in research appearing in the July 9 edition of the Journal of Geophysical Research: Space Physics, NASA indicates that MESSENGER data from June 2011 indicated the spacecraft likely observed solar neutrons accompanied by fast-moving, energetic charged particles.

“To understand all the processes on the sun we look at as many different particles coming from the sun as we can – photons, electrons, protons, neutrons, gamma rays –to gather different kinds of information,” explained first author David Lawrence of the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Lab in Maryland. “Closer to Earth we can observe charged particles from the sun, but analyzing them can be a challenge as their journey is affected by magnetic fields.”

According to the space agency, these charged particles typically twist and gyrate around magnetic field lines that were created by the vast magnetic systems surrounding the Earth and the Sun. However, since neutrons do not possess an electrical charge, they tend to travel in straight lines from the region from which they originate.

They are able to carry data about flare processes undisturbed by the environment through which they travel – information that can be used in order to gain new insight into the complex acceleration processes that help create the highly energetic and fast solar particles, Lawrence and his colleagues noted.

The study authors examined MESSENGER data from June 4 and June 5, 2011 that corresponded to solar flares which had been accompanied by fast-moving, energetic charged particles. The flare took place on the far side of the sun, meaning that Earth-based observations were impossible. However, a solar telescope on the Solar Terrestrial Relations Observatory (STEREO) spacecraft was able to get a clear look at the area where the flare occurred.

NASA said that this “combined use of… mission data makes each individual mission more effective in addressing unsolved science questions. The MESSENGER data showed an increase in the number of – not electrically charged -- neutrons at Mercury’s orbit hours before the large number of charged particles reached the spacecraft.”

“This indicated that the neutrons were most likely produced by accelerated flare particles striking the lower solar atmosphere, releasing neutrons as a result of high-energy collisions,” the agency added. “So, together, the MESSENGER and STEREO data can provide new information about how particles are accelerated in solar flares.”


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