The sun at the center of our Solar System is one of the big reasons why we’re here today, but it can also be a bit of a nuisance from time to time. Coronal mass ejections — when the sun spews a whole bunch of plasma and energy into space — can seriously mess up human communication infrastructure if they happen to graze Earth. For years, researchers have attempted to forecast and predict CMEs in the hopes that warnings could help prevent damage to electronics and the power grid, and when doing so, they’ve modeled the huge solar blasts as bubbles moving through space. As it turns out, a CME is more like a sneeze.
“Up until now, it has been assumed CMEs move like bubbles through space and respond to forces as single objects,” Professor Mathew Owens of the University of Reading explains. “We have found they are more like an expanding dust cloud or sneeze, made up of individual plasma parcels all doing their own thing.
When the solar wind acts on the CME as it moves through space, it causes the shape and behavior of the energy blast to become unpredictable. “Therefore if we want to protect ourselves from solar eruptions, we need to understand more about the solar wind,” Owens says.
This new study, and the suggestion from the research team that solar wind readings be included in the forecasting and prediction of future CMEs, could help scientists more accurately assess the risk that the ejections pose to human technology, and potentially help mitigate the damage they cause.