For the First Time, Scientists Capture a Shockwave Bursting From the Sun

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Charged particles carried by solar winds catch up to each other and result in a shockwave. Goddard Space Flight Center/Conceptual Image Lab

The sun may be our most constant friend in the solar system, the yellow dwarf star that holds our entire solar system together.

But that doesn't mean it's always a steadying force.

In fact, the sun shakes things up on occasion with massive shockwaves that burst from its fiery heart and travel to the very fringes of our solar neighborhood. And, for the first time, NASA scientists have observed and recorded one shockwave's outward odyssey.

This particular shockwave was recorded in January 2018 by the Magnetospheric Multiscale Mission (MMS) — a four-satellite system designed to sniff out charged particles as they move through space. NASA just released the stunning footage, calling it the "first high-resolution measurements of an interplanetary shock."

Scientists used the data to describe how these space-altering shocks are born in a paper published in the Journal of Geophysical Research Space Physics.

They don't start off as shockwaves. Rather, the sun sends out streams of charged particles known as solar winds. Because these streams travel at different speeds, some particles catch up to others. And when they do, their energy is transferred through electromagnetic waves, and a shockwave is born.

"These types of shocks are 'collisionless' because the particles involved in the shock — i.e. the solar wind particles — primarily interact with the electric and magnetic fields and not in billiard-ball-like collision with other particles," lead author Ian Cohen of Johns Hopkins University explains to Newsweek.

Cohen compares the phenomenon to the shockwaves created on Earth when a supersonic jet moves faster than the speed of sound in the air.

NASA illustration of jets moving faster than sound.
When supersonic jets break the sound barrier, they create a shockwave. NASA

Shockwaves from the sun, however, are much more difficult to detect, requiring extremely precise sensors.

Even then, it took four years for MMS satellites to capture one in all its glory.

Our sun isn't the only source of shockwaves; distant stars and even black holes produce them, too.

But as the pillar of our space community, the sun impacts everything in profound ways, right down to the tiniest rock. And shockwaves, which can dramatically alter weather here on Earth, are very loud reminders that its every outburst is well worth heeding.