Pasadena (CA) – “What a surprise!” said California Institute of Technology’s (CIT) Richard Mewaldt when in 2006 NASA’s twin STEREO spacecraft detected a 90-minute long stream of hydrogen atoms flowing out of the sun following the eruption of an X9-class solar flare (one of the largest in the past 30 years). Astronomers now believe they’ve figured out how the sun was able to emit huge quantities of hydrogen following the flare, when traditional wisdom held that everything should’ve been destroyed into sub-atomic particles.
NASA’s twin Solar TErrestrial RElations Observatory (STEREO) spacecraft encountered the hydrogen gas 60 minutes after the initial eruption in 2006. The gas stream continued for 90 minutes, followed by 30 minutes of relative silence. And then came the normal particles astronomers would’ve expected to see following an eruption. These include stray electrons and protons – or “broken atoms”.
Destruction is imminent
The NASA now believes they’ve uncovered the mystery. The hydrogen atoms were actually destroyed when the solar flare burst forth. The eruption, equivalent to 100 million H-bomb explosions, destroyed everything in its wake leaving only disassembled sub-atomic particles streaming forth. However, due to a “radiative recombination and charge exchange,” the scientists explained, some of the protons and electrons formed again into hydrogen gas as they escaped the Sun’s atmosphere.
Once recombining and achieving a state of then being “electrically neutral,” they were able to continue outward in straight lines as regular “particle emissions” from the sun. These reached the Earth within 60 minutes and, due to the size, duration and voracity of the solar flare blast, continued to stream past for 90 minutes beyond that.
Electrical charge means longer journey
The sub-atomic particles that were detected some 30 minutes later were the “cousins” of those former hydrogen atoms. They were the un-recombined remains of the explosion, and were forced to take a zig-zagging pattern through space on their journey due to their remaining electrical charge. This longer journey was required as the particles were forced around the solar system in electromagnetic currents, and were moved by the magnetic fields generated by the sun and planets.
NASA’s press release explains it this way: “Imagine two runners dashing for the finish line. One (the ion) is forced to run in a zig-zag pattern with zigs and zags as wide as the orbit of Mars. The other (the hydrogen atom) runs in a straight line. Who’s going to win?”
At the time of the X9-flare in 2006, NASA’s STEREO-a and STEREO-b spacecraft were still relatively close to each other having only recently been launched from Earth. Since then though, they’ve moved into distant solar orbits much further apart from one another and could now record the same event from notably different locations.
NASA is currently waiting for another X-class solar flare to continue their observations and confirm the hypothesis. NASA measures the “n” value in Xn-class solar flares much like the Richter Scale or Fujita Scale for measuring tornadoes. An X1-class solar flare is very big, and an X9-class is simply awe-inspiring.