An observatory in close solar orbit captured a snake seemingly slinking across the surface of the Sun in a new video.
However, the “serpent” observed by the Solar Orbiter of the European Space Agency is not a real stellar squamate but rather a recently discovered solar phenomenon that may be connected to powerful eruptions from an agitated Sun.
The Orbiter noticed the moving structure on 5 September as it approached its closest approach, known as a perihelion, scheduled for 12 October, the closest Solar Orbiter had ever been. (By the way, the video from that encounter was incredible.)
The Solar Orbiter imaged a rippling line propagating a long path across the Sun as it approached. According to solar scientists, this is a cooler tube of plasma bound by solar magnetic fields in the Sun’s surrounding hot plasma.
The video shows a filament of the solar magnetic field snaking across the Sun from one side to the other.
“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,” explains astronomer David Long of University College London in the UK.
Solar magnetic fields are complex, and understanding them and their behavior is a never-ending Herculean task.
However, the solar atmosphere is made up of plasma, which is made up of charged particles that are easily confined by magnetic fields.
The solar snake allows scientists to observe the magnetic field moving, but what it is moving away from is even more intriguing.
Shortly after the filament began its journey across the Sun, its starting point erupted in a coronal mass ejection, blasting plasma into space.
These eruptions are typically linked to sunspots, which are areas of concentrated magnetic field lines on the Sun. These magnetic field lines tangle, snap, and reconnect, resulting in coronal mass ejections and, occasionally, solar flares.
The snake could have been linked to one of the most powerful coronal mass ejections detected by Solar Orbiter since its launch in February 2020, possibly as a precursor to the eruption.
The Solar Orbiter isn’t alone in space; NASA’s Parker Solar Probe was directly in the path of the coronal mass ejection. It’s unharmed – it was built to withstand and measure solar outbursts – and we’re all waiting to see what it discovered in the plasma ejected by such a massive eruption.
READ MORE: See the Most Detailed Picture of the Sun’s Surface Ever Taken