Shock Waves in the Solar Wind

The empty space of our solar system is not truly empty, as we’ve discussed previously. For one, there’s a fast-moving flux of charged particles – the solar wind – that flows constantly from the Sun. Sometimes these solar wind particles encounter their interstellar equivalents – charged ions from outside our solar system – and exchange energy.

One predicted mechanism for this energy swap is a solar wind shock wave, which occurs when a faster-moving clump of charged particles plows into a slower-moving one. Scientists hypothesized in the mid 1990s that far from the Sun, solar wind shock waves would lose their energy by passing it to these interstellar ions, in a process known as pickup. Data from the New Horizons spacecraft has finally provided evidence for this theory.

In October 2015, instruments on the spacecraft recorded a shock wave when the speed of solar wind ions nearby jumped from 380 km/s to 440 km/s. Comparing the energies of solar and interstellar ions before and after the event, researchers found that interstellar pickup ions became 30% more energetic while solar ions lost 85% of their energy. It’s an important confirmation of theoretical predictions and should help us better understand high-energy particle physics at the edges of our solar system. (Image credit: NASA; research credit: E. Zirnstein et al., via J. Ouellette)

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