Solar wind

The solar wind is a stream of charged particles released from the upper atmosphere of the Sun, called the corona. This plasma consists of mostly electrons, protons and alpha particles with kinetic energy between 0.5 and 10 keV. Embedded within the solar-wind plasma is the interplanetary magnetic field.[2] The solar wind varies in density, temperature and speed over time and over solar latitude and longitude. Its particles can escape the Sun's gravity because of their high energy resulting from the high temperature of the corona, which in turn is a result of the coronal magnetic field.

At a distance of more than a few solar radii from the Sun, the solar wind is supersonic and reaches speeds of 250 to 750 kilometers per second.[3] The flow of the solar wind is no longer supersonic at the termination shock. The Voyager 2 spacecraft crossed the shock more than five times between 30 August and 10 December 2007.[4] Voyager 2 crossed the shock about a billion kilometers closer to the Sun than the 13.5-billion-kilometer distance where Voyager 1 came upon the termination shock.[5][6] The spacecraft moved outward through the termination shock into the heliosheath and onward toward the interstellar medium. Other related phenomena include the aurora (northern and southern lights), the plasma tails of comets that always point away from the Sun, and geomagnetic storms that can change the direction of magnetic field lines.

Solar wind Speed interplanetary magnetic field
Ulysses' observations of solar wind speed as a function of helio latitude during solar minimum. Slow wind (≈400 km/s) is confined to the equatorial regions, while fast wind (≈750 km/s) is seen over the poles.[1] Red/blue colors show inward/outward polarities of the heliospheric magnetic field.


The existence of particles flowing outward from the Sun to the Earth was first suggested by British astronomer Richard C. Carrington. In 1859, Carrington and Richard Hodgson independently made the first observation of what would later be called a solar flare. This is a sudden, localised increase in brightness on the solar disc, which is now known[7] to often occur in conjunction with an episodic ejection of material and magnetic flux from the Sun's atmosphere, known as a coronal mass ejection. On the following day, a geomagnetic storm was observed, and Carrington suspected that there might be a connection, which is now attributed to the arrival of the coronal mass ejection in near-Earth space and its subsequent interaction with the Earth's magnetosphere. George FitzGerald later suggested that matter was being regularly accelerated away from the Sun and was reaching the Earth after several days.[8]

Laboratory simulation of the magnetosphere's influence on the Solar Wind; these auroral-like Birkeland currents were created in a terrella, a magnetised anode globe in an evacuated chamber.

In 1910 British astrophysicist Arthur Eddington essentially suggested the existence of the solar wind, without naming it, in a footnote to an article on Comet Morehouse.[9] The idea never fully caught on even though Eddington had also made a similar suggestion at a Royal Institution address the previous year. In the latter case, he postulated that the ejected material consisted of electrons while in his study of Comet Morehouse he supposed them to be ions.[9]

The first person to suggest that the ejected material consisted of both ions and electrons was Kristian Birkeland.[10] His geomagnetic surveys showed that auroral activity was nearly uninterrupted. As these displays and other geomagnetic activity were being produced by particles from the Sun, he concluded that the Earth was being continually bombarded by "rays of electric corpuscles emitted by the Sun".[8] In 1916, Birkeland proposed that, "From a physical point of view it is most probable that solar rays are neither exclusively negative nor positive rays, but of both kinds". In other words, the solar wind consists of both negative electrons and positive ions.[11] Three years later in 1919, Frederick Lindemann also suggested that particles of both polarities, protons as well as electrons, come from the Sun.[12]

Around the 1930s, scientists had determined that the temperature of the solar corona must be a million degrees Celsius because of the way it stood out into space (as seen during total eclipses). Later spectroscopic work confirmed this extraordinary temperature. In the mid-1950s Sydney Chapman calculated the properties of a gas at such a temperature and determined it was such a superb conductor of heat that it must extend way out into space, beyond the orbit of Earth. Also in the 1950s, Ludwig Biermann became interested in the fact that no matter whether a comet is headed towards or away from the Sun, its tail always points away from the Sun. Biermann postulated that this happens because the Sun emits a steady stream of particles that pushes the comet's tail away.[13] Wilfried Schröder claimed that Paul Ahnert was the first to relate solar wind to comet tail direction based on observations of the comet Whipple-Fedke (1942g).[14]

Eugene Parker realised heat flowing from the Sun in Chapman's model and the comet tail blowing away from the Sun in Biermann's hypothesis had to be the result of the same phenomenon, which he termed the "solar wind".[15][16] In 1957, Parker showed, even though the Sun's corona is strongly attracted by solar gravity, it is such a good heat conductor that it is still very hot at large distances. Since gravity weakens as distance from the Sun increases, the outer coronal atmosphere escapes supersonically into interstellar space. Furthermore, Parker was the first person to notice that the weakening effect of the gravity has the same effect on hydrodynamic flow as a de Laval nozzle: it incites a transition from subsonic to supersonic flow.[17]

Opposition to Parker's hypothesis on the solar wind was strong. The paper he submitted to The Astrophysical Journal in 1958 was rejected by two reviewers. It was saved by the editor Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar.

In January 1959, the Soviet spacecraft Luna 1 first directly observed the solar wind and measured its strength,[18][19][20] using hemispherical ion traps. The discovery, made by Konstantin Gringauz, was verified by Luna 2, Luna 3 and by the more distant measurements of Venera 1. Three years later a similar measurement was performed by Neugebauer and collaborators using the Mariner 2 spacecraft.[21]

In the late 1990s, the Ultraviolet Coronal Spectrometer (UVCS) instrument on board the SOHO spacecraft observed the acceleration region of the fast solar wind emanating from the poles of the Sun and found that the wind accelerates much faster than can be accounted for by thermodynamic expansion alone. Parker's model predicted that the wind should make the transition to supersonic flow at an altitude of about 4 solar radii from the photosphere (surface); but the transition (or "sonic point") now appears to be much lower, perhaps only 1 solar radius above the photosphere, suggesting that some additional mechanism accelerates the solar wind away from the Sun. The acceleration of the fast wind is still not understood and cannot be fully explained by Parker's theory. The gravitational and electromagnetic explanation for this acceleration is, however, detailed in an earlier paper by 1970 Nobel laureate for Physics, Hannes Alfvén.[22][23]

The first numerical simulation of the solar wind in the solar corona including closed and open field lines was performed by Pneuman and Kopp in 1971. The magnetohydrodynamics equations in steady state were solved iteratively starting with an initial dipolar configuration.[24]

In 1990, the Ulysses probe was launched to study the solar wind from high solar latitudes. All prior observations had been made at or near the Solar System's ecliptic plane.[25]

In 2006, the STEREO mission was launched to study coronal mass ejections and the solar corona using stereoscopy from two widely separated imaging systems. Each STEREO spacecraft carried two heliospheric imagers: highly sensitive wide-field cameras capable of imaging the solar wind itself, via Thomson scattering of sunlight off of free electrons. Movies from STEREO revealed the solar wind near the ecliptic, as a large-scale turbulent flow.

In 2018, NASA launched the Parker Solar Probe, named in honor of Eugene Parker, on a mission to study the structure and dynamics of the solar corona, in an attempt to understand the mechanisms that cause particles to be heated and accelerated as solar wind. During its seven-year mission, the probe will make twenty-four orbits of the sun, passing further into the corona with each orbit's perihelion, ultimately passing within 0.04 astronomical units of the sun's surface. It is the first NASA spacecraft named for a living person, and Parker himself, at age 91, was on hand to observe the launch.[26]


While early models of the solar wind relied primarily on thermal energy to accelerate the material, by the 1960s it was clear that thermal acceleration alone cannot account for the high speed of solar wind. An additional unknown acceleration mechanism is required and likely relates to magnetic fields in the solar atmosphere.

The Sun's corona, or extended outer layer, is a region of plasma that is heated to over a million kelvin. As a result of thermal collisions, the particles within the inner corona have a range and distribution of speeds described by a Maxwellian distribution. The mean velocity of these particles is about 145 km/s, which is well below the solar escape velocity of 618 km/s. However, a few of the particles achieve energies sufficient to reach the terminal velocity of 400 km/s, which allows them to feed the solar wind. At the same temperature, electrons, due to their much smaller mass, reach escape velocity and build up an electric field that further accelerates ions away from the Sun.[27]

The total number of particles carried away from the Sun by the solar wind is about 1.3×1036 per second.[28] Thus, the total mass loss each year is about (2–3)×1014 solar masses,[29] or about (1.3–1.9) million tonnes per second. This is equivalent to losing a mass equal to the Earth every 150 million years.[30] However, only about 0.01% of the Sun's total mass has been lost through the solar wind.[31] Other stars have much stronger stellar winds that result in significantly higher mass loss rates.

Properties and structure

Fast and slow solar wind

The solar wind is observed to exist in two fundamental states, termed the slow solar wind and the fast solar wind, though their differences extend well beyond their speeds. In near-Earth space, the slow solar wind is observed to have a velocity of 300–500 km/s, a temperature of 1.4–1.6×106 K and a composition that is a close match to the corona. By contrast, the fast solar wind has a typical velocity of 750 km/s, a temperature of 8×105 K and it nearly matches the composition of the Sun's photosphere.[32] The slow solar wind is twice as dense and more variable in nature than the fast solar wind.[28][33]

The slow solar wind appears to originate from a region around the Sun's equatorial belt that is known as the "streamer belt", where coronal streamers are produced by magnetic flux open to the heliosphere draping over closed magnetic loops. The exact coronal structures involved in slow solar wind formation and the method by which the material is released is still under debate.[34][35][36] Observations of the Sun between 1996 and 2001 showed that emission of the slow solar wind occurred at latitudes up to 30–35° during the solar minimum (the period of lowest solar activity), then expanded toward the poles as the solar cycle approached maximum. At solar maximum, the poles were also emitting a slow solar wind.[1]

The fast solar wind originates from coronal holes,[37] which are funnel-like regions of open field lines in the Sun's magnetic field.[38] Such open lines are particularly prevalent around the Sun's magnetic poles. The plasma source is small magnetic fields created by convection cells in the solar atmosphere. These fields confine the plasma and transport it into the narrow necks of the coronal funnels, which are located only 20,000 kilometers above the photosphere. The plasma is released into the funnel when these magnetic field lines reconnect.[39]


The wind exerts a pressure at 1 AU typically in the range of 1–6 nPa (1–6×109 N/m2), although it can readily vary outside that range.

The ram pressure is a function of wind speed and density. The formula is

P = mp * n * V2= 1.6726×106 * n * V2

where mp is the proton mass, pressure P is in nPa (nanopascals), n is the density in particles/cm3 and V is the speed in km/s of the solar wind.[40]

Coronal mass ejection

Both the fast and slow solar wind can be interrupted by large, fast-moving bursts of plasma called interplanetary coronal mass ejections, or ICMEs. ICMEs are the interplanetary manifestation of solar coronal mass ejections, which are caused by release of magnetic energy at the Sun. ICMEs are often called "solar storms" or "space storms" in the popular media. They are sometimes, but not always, associated with solar flares, which are another manifestation of magnetic energy release at the Sun. ICMEs cause shock waves in the thin plasma of the heliosphere, launching electromagnetic waves and accelerating particles (mostly protons and electrons) to form showers of ionizing radiation that precede the CME.

When a CME impacts the Earth's magnetosphere, it temporarily deforms the Earth's magnetic field, changing the direction of compass needles and inducing large electrical ground currents in Earth itself; this is called a geomagnetic storm and it is a global phenomenon. CME impacts can induce magnetic reconnection in Earth's magnetotail (the midnight side of the magnetosphere); this launches protons and electrons downward toward Earth's atmosphere, where they form the aurora.

ICMEs are not the only cause of space weather. Different patches on the Sun are known to give rise to slightly different speeds and densities of wind depending on local conditions. In isolation, each of these different wind streams would form a spiral with a slightly different angle, with fast-moving streams moving out more directly and slow-moving streams wrapping more around the Sun. Fast moving streams tend to overtake slower streams that originate westward of them on the Sun, forming turbulent co-rotating interaction regions that give rise to wave motions and accelerated particles, and that affect Earth's magnetosphere in the same way as, but more gently than, CMEs.

Solar System effects

The heliospheric current sheet results from the influence of the Sun's rotating magnetic field on the plasma in the solar wind

Over the Sun's lifetime, the interaction of its surface layers with the escaping solar wind has significantly decreased its surface rotation rate.[41] The wind is considered responsible for comets' tails, along with the Sun's radiation.[42] The solar wind contributes to fluctuations in celestial radio waves observed on the Earth, through an effect called interplanetary scintillation.[43]


Structure of the magnetosphere-en
Schematic of Earth's magnetosphere. The solar wind flows from left to right.

Where the solar wind intersects with a planet that has a well-developed magnetic field (such as Earth, Jupiter or Saturn), the particles are deflected by the Lorentz force. This region, known as the magnetosphere, causes the particles to travel around the planet rather than bombarding the atmosphere or surface. The magnetosphere is roughly shaped like a hemisphere on the side facing the Sun, then is drawn out in a long wake on the opposite side. The boundary of this region is called the magnetopause, and some of the particles are able to penetrate the magnetosphere through this region by partial reconnection of the magnetic field lines.[27]

Solar Wind and Earth's magnetic field
Noon meridian section of magnetosphere

The solar wind is responsible for the overall shape of Earth's magnetosphere. Fluctuations in its speed, density, direction, and entrained magnetic field strongly affect Earth's local space environment. For example, the levels of ionizing radiation and radio interference can vary by factors of hundreds to thousands; and the shape and location of the magnetopause and bow shock wave upstream of it can change by several Earth radii, exposing geosynchronous satellites to the direct solar wind. These phenomena are collectively called space weather.

From the European Space Agency's Cluster mission, a new study has taken place that proposes that it is easier for the solar wind to infiltrate the magnetosphere than previously believed. A group of scientists directly observed the existence of certain waves in the solar wind that were not expected. A recent study shows that these waves enable incoming charged particles of solar wind to breach the magnetopause. This suggests that the magnetic bubble forms more as a filter than a continuous barrier. This latest discovery occurred through the distinctive arrangement of the four identical Cluster spacecraft, which fly in a controlled configuration through near-Earth space. As they sweep from the magnetosphere into interplanetary space and back again, the fleet provides exceptional three-dimensional insights on the phenomena that connect the sun to Earth.

The research characterised variances in formation of the interplanetary magnetic field (IMF) largely influenced by Kelvin–Helmholtz instability (which occur at the interface of two fluids) as a result of differences in thickness and numerous other characteristics of the boundary layer. Experts believe that this was the first occasion that the appearance of Kelvin-Helmholtz waves at the magnetopause had been displayed at high latitude dawnward orientation of the IMF. These waves are being seen in unforeseen places under solar wind conditions that were formerly believed to be undesired for their generation. These discoveries show how Earth's magnetosphere can be penetrated by solar particles under specific IMF circumstances. The findings are also relevant to studies of magnetospheric progressions around other planetary bodies. This study suggests that Kelvin-Helmholtz waves can be a somewhat common, and possibly constant, instrument for the entrance of solar wind into terrestrial magnetospheres under various IMF orientations.[44]


The solar wind affects other incoming cosmic rays interacting with planetary atmospheres. Moreover, planets with a weak or non-existent magnetosphere are subject to atmospheric stripping by the solar wind.

Venus, the nearest and most similar planet to Earth, has 100 times denser atmosphere, with little or no geo-magnetic field. Space probes discovered a comet-like tail that extends to Earth's orbit.[45]

Earth itself is largely protected from the solar wind by its magnetic field, which deflects most of the charged particles; however some of the charged particles are trapped in the Van Allen radiation belt. A smaller number of particles from the solar wind manage to travel, as though on an electromagnetic energy transmission line, to the Earth's upper atmosphere and ionosphere in the auroral zones. The only time the solar wind is observable on the Earth is when it is strong enough to produce phenomena such as the aurora and geomagnetic storms. Bright auroras strongly heat the ionosphere, causing its plasma to expand into the magnetosphere, increasing the size of the plasma geosphere and injecting atmospheric matter into the solar wind. Geomagnetic storms result when the pressure of plasmas contained inside the magnetosphere is sufficiently large to inflate and thereby distort the geomagnetic field.

Although Mars is larger than Mercury and four times farther from the Sun, it is thought that the solar wind has stripped away up to a third of its original atmosphere, leaving a layer 1/100th as dense as the Earth's. It is believed the mechanism for this atmospheric stripping is gas caught in bubbles of magnetic field, which are ripped off by solar winds.[46] In 2015 the NASA Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution (MAVEN) mission measured the rate of atmospheric stripping caused by the magnetic field carried by the solar wind as it flows past Mars, which generates an electric field, much as a turbine on Earth can be used to generate electricity. This electric field accelerates electrically charged gas atoms, called ions, in Mars' upper atmosphere and shoots them into space.[47] The MAVEN mission measured the rate of atmospheric stripping at about 100 grams (≈1/4 lb) per second.[48]

Moons and planetary surfaces

Aldrin Next to Solar Wind Experiment - GPN-2000-001211
Apollo's SWC experiment

Mercury, the nearest planet to the Sun, bears the full brunt of the solar wind, and since its atmosphere is vestigial and transient, its surface is bathed in radiation.

Mercury has an intrinsic magnetic field, so under normal solar wind conditions, the solar wind cannot penetrate its magnetosphere and particles only reach the surface in the cusp regions. During coronal mass ejections, however, the magnetopause may get pressed into the surface of the planet, and under these conditions, the solar wind may interact freely with the planetary surface.

The Earth's Moon has no atmosphere or intrinsic magnetic field, and consequently its surface is bombarded with the full solar wind. The Project Apollo missions deployed passive aluminum collectors in an attempt to sample the solar wind, and lunar soil returned for study confirmed that the lunar regolith is enriched in atomic nuclei deposited from the solar wind. These elements may prove useful resources for lunar colonies.[49]

Outer limits

The solar wind "blows a bubble" in the interstellar medium (the rarefied hydrogen and helium gas that permeates the galaxy). The point where the solar wind's strength is no longer great enough to push back the interstellar medium is known as the heliopause and is often considered to be the outer border of the Solar System. The distance to the heliopause is not precisely known and probably depends on the current velocity of the solar wind and the local density of the interstellar medium, but it is far outside Pluto's orbit. Scientists hope to gain perspective on the heliopause from data acquired through the Interstellar Boundary Explorer (IBEX) mission, launched in October 2008.

Notable events

  • From May 10 to May 12, 1999, NASA's Advanced Composition Explorer (ACE) and WIND spacecraft observed a 98% decrease of solar wind density. This allowed energetic electrons from the Sun to flow to Earth in narrow beams known as "strahl", which caused a highly unusual "polar rain" event, in which a visible aurora appeared over the North Pole. In addition, Earth's magnetosphere increased to between 5 and 6 times its normal size.[50]
  • On 13 December 2010, Voyager 1 determined that the velocity of the solar wind, at its location 10.8 billion miles (17.4 billion km) from Earth had slowed to zero. "We have gotten to the point where the wind from the Sun, which until now has always had an outward motion, is no longer moving outward; it is only moving sideways so that it can end up going down the tail of the heliosphere, which is a comet-shaped-like object," said Voyager project scientist Edward Stone.[51][52]

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N. Metzler, S. Cuperman, M. Dryer and P. Rosenau, A time-dependent two-fluid model with thermal conduction for Solar Wind. Astrophys. J., 231 (3) 960–976, 1979.

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Advanced Composition Explorer

Advanced Composition Explorer (ACE) is a NASA Explorers program Solar and space exploration mission to study matter comprising energetic particles from the solar wind, the interplanetary medium, and other sources.

Real-time data from ACE is used by the NOAA Space Weather Prediction Center to improve forecasts and warnings of solar storms. The ACE robotic spacecraft was launched August 25, 1997, and entered a Lissajous orbit close to the L1 Lagrangian point (which lies between the Sun and the Earth at a distance of some 1.5 million km from the latter) on December 12, 1997. The spacecraft is currently operating at that orbit. Because ACE is in a non-Keplerian orbit, and has regular station-keeping maneuvers, the orbital parameters in the adjacent information box are only approximate.

As of 2019, the spacecraft is still in generally good condition, and is projected to have enough propellant to maintain its orbit until 2024. NASA Goddard Space Flight Center managed the development and integration of the ACE spacecraft.


An aurora (plural: auroras or aurorae), sometimes referred to as polar lights, northern lights (aurora borealis), southern lights (aurora australis), is a natural light display in the Earth's sky, predominantly seen in the high-latitude regions (around the Arctic and Antarctic).

Auroras are the result of disturbances in the magnetosphere caused by solar wind. These disturbances are regularly strong enough to alter the trajectories of charged particles in both solar wind and magnetospheric plasma. These particles, mainly electrons and protons, precipitate into the upper atmosphere (thermosphere/exosphere).

The resulting ionization and excitation of atmospheric constituents emits light of varying color and complexity. The form of the aurora, occurring within bands around both polar regions, is also dependent on the amount of acceleration imparted to the precipitating particles. Precipitating protons generally produce optical emissions as incident hydrogen atoms after gaining electrons from the atmosphere. Proton auroras are usually observed at lower latitudes.

Electric sail

An electric sail (also known as an electric solar wind sail or an E-sail) is a proposed form of spacecraft propulsion using the dynamic pressure of the solar wind as a source of thrust. It creates a "virtual" sail by using small wires to form an electric field that deflects solar wind protons and extracts their momentum. The idea was first conceptualised by Pekka Janhunen in 2006 at the Finnish Meteorological Institute.

Genesis (spacecraft)

Genesis was a NASA sample-return probe that collected a sample of solar wind particles and returned them to Earth for analysis. It was the first NASA sample-return mission to return material since the Apollo program, and the first to return material from beyond the orbit of the Moon. Genesis was launched on August 8, 2001, and the sample return capsule crash-landed in Utah on September 8, 2004, after a design flaw prevented the deployment of its drogue parachute. The crash contaminated many of the sample collectors. Although most were damaged, some of the collectors were successfully recovered.The Genesis science team demonstrated that some of the contamination could be removed or avoided, and that the solar wind particles could be analyzed using a variety of approaches, achieving all of the mission's major science objectives.


The term heliophysics means "physics of the Sun" (the prefix "helio", from Attic Greek hḗlios, means Sun), and appears to have been used only in that sense until quite recently. In the early times, heliophysics was concerned principally with the superficial layers of the star, and was synonymous with what is now more commonly called "solar physics". Usage was extended explicitly in 1981 to its literal meaning, denoting the physics of the entire Sun: from center to corona, and has been used in that sense since. As such it was a direct translation from the French héliophysique, which had been introduced to provide a distinction from physique solaire (solar physics). It thus became a subdiscipline of heliology. Early in the 21st century the meaning of the term was extended by Dr George Siscoe of Boston University to include the physics of the heliosphere (the space around the Sun beyond the corona, in principle out to the shock where the solar wind encounters the interstellar medium, but excluding the planets and other condensed bodies), although Siscoe's view of the discipline appears not to contain most of the true realm of endeavour. The term was adopted in Siscoe's restricted sense by the NASA Science Mission Directorate to denote the study of the heliosphere and the objects that interact with it—most notably planetary atmospheres and magnetospheres, the solar corona, and the interstellar medium. Heliophysics combines several other disciplines, including solar physics, and stellar physics in general, and also several branches of nuclear physics, plasma physics, space physics and magnetospheric physics. Solar wind interaction with magnetized planets, Solar wind propagation, Solar activity effects on planetary magnetospheres. Solar magnetic field configuration from the Sun to the Heliopause. The recent extension of heliophysics is closely tied to the study of space weather and the phenomena that affect it. To quote Siscoe from a recent conference presentation:

Heliophysics [encompasses] environmental science, a unique hybrid between meteorology and astrophysics, comprising a body of data and a set of paradigms (general laws—perhaps mostly still undiscovered) specific to magnetized plasmas and neutrals in the heliosphere interacting with themselves and with gravitating bodies and their atmospheres.

"Heliophysics" is now the name of one of four divisions within NASA's Science Mission Directorate (Earth Science, Planetary Science, Heliophysics, and Astrophysics). The title was used to simplify the name of the "Sun--Solar-System Connections" Division (and before that, the "Sun-Earth Connections" Division).

NASA's restricted use of the term heliophysics has also been adopted in naming the International Heliophysical Year in 2007-2008.


The heliosphere is the vast, bubble-like region of space which surrounds and is created by the Sun. In plasma physics terms, this is the cavity formed by the Sun in the surrounding interstellar medium. The "bubble" of the heliosphere is continuously "inflated" by plasma originating from the Sun, known as the solar wind. Outside the heliosphere, this solar plasma gives way to the interstellar plasma permeating our galaxy. Radiation levels inside and outside the heliosphere differ; in particular, the galactic cosmic rays are less abundant inside the heliosphere, so that the planets inside (including Earth) are partly shielded from their impact. The word "heliosphere" is said to have been coined by Alexander J. Dessler, who is credited with first use of the word in scientific literature in 1967. The scientific study of the heliosphere is heliophysics, which includes space weather and space climate.

Flowing unimpeded through the Solar System for billions of kilometres, the solar wind extends far beyond even the region of Pluto, until it encounters the termination shock, where its motion slows abruptly due to the outside pressure of the interstellar medium. Beyond the shock lies the heliosheath, a broad transitional region between the inner heliosphere and the external environment. The outermost edge of the heliosphere is called the heliopause. The overall shape of the heliosphere resembles that of a comet – being approximately spherical on one side, with a long trailing tail opposite, known as the heliotail.

The two Voyager spacecraft have explored the outer reaches of the heliosphere, passing through the termination shock and the heliosheath. NASA announced in 2013 that Voyager 1 had encountered the heliopause on 25 August 2012, when the spacecraft measured a sudden increase in plasma density of about forty times. In 2018, NASA announced that Voyager 2 had traversed the heliopause on 5 November of that year. Because the heliopause marks the boundary between matter originating from the Sun and matter originating from the rest of the galaxy, spacecraft such as the two Voyagers, which have departed the heliosphere, can be said to have reached interstellar space.

Heliospheric current sheet

The heliospheric current sheet

is the surface within the Solar System where the polarity of the Sun's magnetic field changes from north to south. This field extends throughout the Sun's equatorial plane in the heliosphere. The shape of the current sheet results from the influence of the Sun's rotating magnetic field on the plasma in the interplanetary medium (solar wind). A small electrical current flows within the sheet, about 10−10 A/m². The thickness of the current sheet is about 10,000 km near the orbit of the Earth.

The underlying magnetic field is called the interplanetary magnetic field, and the resulting electric current forms part of the heliospheric current circuit. The heliospheric current sheet is also sometimes called the interplanetary current sheet.

Helmet streamer

Helmet streamers are bright loop-like structures which develop over active regions on the Sun. They are closed magnetic loops which connect regions of opposite magnetic polarity. Electrons are captured in these loops, and cause them to glow very brightly. The solar wind elongates these loops to pointy tips. They far extend above most prominences into the corona, and can be readily observed during a solar eclipse. Helmet streamers are usually confined to the "streamer belt" in the mid latitudes, and their distribution follows the movement of active regions during the solar cycle. Small blobs of plasma, or "plasmoids" are sometimes released from the tips of helmet streamers, and this is one source of the slow component of the solar wind. In contrast, formations with open magnetic field lines are called coronal holes, and these are darker and are a source of the fast solar wind. Helmet streamers can also create coronal mass ejections if a large volume of plasma becomes disconnected near the tip of the streamer.


The International Sun-Earth Explorer 2 (ISEE-2 a.k.a. ISEE-B) was a space probe used to study magnetic fields near the Earth. ISEE-1 and ISEE-2 were launched on October 22, 1977, and they re-entered on September 26, 1987. The instruments on board ISEE-2 were designed to measure electric and magnetic field properties.

ISEE-2 had a thruster to adjust the spacing between the two spacecraft, depending on desired goal. Early results from duo stated that by having two spacecraft, the "spatial and temporal variations in the magnetosphere and solar wind" could be detected.

Interplanetary magnetic field

The interplanetary magnetic field (IMF), now more commonly referred to as the heliospheric magnetic field (HMF), is the component of the solar magnetic field which is dragged out from the solar corona by the solar wind flow to fill the Solar System.

Magnetic sail

A magnetic sail or magsail is a proposed method of spacecraft propulsion which would use a static magnetic field to deflect charged particles radiated by the Sun as a plasma wind, and thus impart momentum to accelerate the spacecraft. A magnetic sail could also thrust directly against planetary and solar magnetospheres.


The magnetopause is the abrupt boundary between a magnetosphere and the surrounding plasma. For planetary science, the magnetopause is the boundary between the planet's magnetic field and the solar wind. The location of the magnetopause is determined by the balance between the pressure of the dynamic planetary magnetic field and the dynamic pressure of the solar wind. As the solar wind pressure increases and decreases, the magnetopause moves inward and outward in response. Waves (ripples and flapping motion) along the magnetopause move in the direction of the solar wind flow in response to small-scale variations in the solar wind pressure and to Kelvin–Helmholtz instability.

The solar wind is supersonic and passes through a bow shock where the direction of flow is changed so that most of the solar wind plasma is deflected to either side of the magnetopause, much like water is deflected before the bow of a ship. The zone of shocked solar wind plasma is the magnetosheath. At Earth and all the other planets with intrinsic magnetic fields, some solar wind plasma succeeds in entering and becoming trapped within the magnetosphere. At Earth, the solar wind plasma which enters the magnetosphere forms the plasma sheet. The amount of solar wind plasma and energy that enters the magnetosphere is regulated by the orientation of the interplanetary magnetic field, which is embedded in the solar wind.

The Sun and other stars with magnetic fields and stellar winds have a solar magnetopause or heliopause where the stellar environment is bounded by the interstellar environment.


A magnetosphere is a region of space surrounding an astronomical object in which charged particles are manipulated or affected by that object's magnetic field. It is created by a planet having an active interior dynamo.

In the space environment close to a planetary body, the magnetic field resembles a magnetic dipole. Farther out, field lines can be significantly distorted by the flow of electrically conducting plasma, as emitted from the Sun or a nearby star. e.g. the solar wind. Planets having active magnetospheres, like the Earth, are capable of mitigating or blocking the effects of solar radiation or cosmic radiation, that also protects all living organisms from potentially detrimental and dangerous consequences. This is studied under the specialized scientific subjects of plasma physics, space physics and aeronomy.

Magnetosphere of Saturn

The magnetosphere of Saturn is the cavity created in the flow of the solar wind by the planet's internally generated magnetic field. Discovered in 1979 by the Pioneer 11 spacecraft, Saturn's magnetosphere is the second largest of any planet in the Solar System after Jupiter. The magnetopause, the boundary between Saturn's magnetosphere and the solar wind, is located at a distance of about 20 Saturn radii from the planet's center, while its magnetotail stretches hundreds of Saturn radii behind it.

Saturn's magnetosphere is filled with plasmas originating from both the planet and its moons. The main source is the small moon Enceladus, which ejects as much as 1,000 kg/s of water vapor from the geysers on its south pole, a portion of which is ionized and forced to co-rotate with the Saturn’s magnetic field. This loads the field with as much as 100 kg of water group ions per second. This plasma gradually moves out from the inner magnetosphere via the interchange instability mechanism and then escapes through the magnetotail.

The interaction between Saturn's magnetosphere and the solar wind generates bright oval aurorae around the planet's poles observed in visible, infrared and ultraviolet light. The aurorae are related to the powerful saturnian kilometric radiation (SKR), which spans the frequency interval between 100 kHz to 1300 kHz and was once thought to modulate with a period equal to the planet's rotation. However, later measurements showed that the periodicity of the SKR's modulation varies by as much as 1%, and so probably does not exactly coincide with Saturn’s true rotational period, which as of 2010 remains unknown. Inside the magnetosphere there are radiation belts, which house particles with energy as high as tens of megaelectronvolts. The energetic particles have significant influence on the surfaces of inner icy moons of Saturn.

In 1980–1981 the magnetosphere of Saturn was studied by the Voyager spacecraft. Up until September 2017 it was a subject of ongoing investigation by Cassini mission, which arrived in 2004 and spent over 13 years observing the planet.

Nozomi (spacecraft)

Nozomi (Japanese: のぞみ, lit. "Wish" or "Hope," and known before launch as Planet-B) was a planned and launched Mars-orbiting aeronomy probe. It did not reach Mars orbit due to electrical failures. The mission was terminated on December 31, 2003.It was constructed by the Institute of Space and Astronautical Science, University of Tokyo and launched on July 4, 1998, at 03:12 JST (July 3, 1998, at 18:12 UTC) with an on-orbit dry mass of 258 kg and 282 kg of propellant.Nozomi was designed to study the upper Martian atmosphere and its interaction with the solar wind and to develop technologies for use in future planetary missions. Specifically, instruments on the spacecraft were to measure the structure, composition and dynamics of the ionosphere, aeronomy effects of the solar wind, the escape of atmospheric constituents, the intrinsic magnetic field, the penetration of the solar-wind magnetic field, the structure of the magnetosphere, and dust in the upper atmosphere and in orbit around Mars. The mission would have also returned images of Mars' surface.

Solar Wind (album)

Solar Wind is an album by pianist Ramsey Lewis which was recorded in 1974 and released on the Columbia label. It was partly recorded in Memphis with former Stax producer and session guitarist, Steve Cropper, a member of the Booker T and the MGs group.

Solar and Heliospheric Observatory

The Solar and Heliospheric Observatory (SOHO) is a spacecraft built by a European industrial consortium led by Matra Marconi Space (now Astrium) that was launched on a Lockheed Martin Atlas II AS launch vehicle on December 2, 1995 to study the Sun. SOHO has also discovered over 3,000 comets. It began normal operations in May 1996. It is a joint project of international cooperation between the European Space Agency (ESA) and NASA. Originally planned as a two-year mission, SOHO continues to operate after over 20 years in space: the mission is extended until the end of 2020 with a likely extension until 2022.In addition to its scientific mission, it is the main source of near-real-time solar data for space weather prediction. Along with the GGS Wind, Advanced Composition Explorer (ACE) and DSCOVR, SOHO is one of four spacecraft in the vicinity of the Earth–Sun L1 point, a point of gravitational balance located approximately 0.99 astronomical unit (AU)s from the Sun and 0.01 AU from the Earth. In addition to its scientific contributions, SOHO is distinguished by being the first three-axis-stabilized spacecraft to use its reaction wheels as a kind of virtual gyroscope; the technique was adopted after an on-board emergency in 1998 that nearly resulted in the loss of the spacecraft.

Solar wind Magnetosphere Ionosphere Link Explorer

Solar wind Magnetosphere Ionosphere Link Explorer (SMILE) is a planned joint venture mission between the European Space Agency and the Chinese Academy of Sciences to study the interaction between Earth's magnetosphere and the solar wind, while simultaneously monitoring the magnetosphere's plasma environment. Launch is expected in 2023.

Wind (spacecraft)

The Global Geospace Science (GGS) Wind satellite is a NASA science spacecraft launched on November 1, 1994, at 09:31 UTC, from launch pad 17B at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station (CCAFS) in Merritt Island, Florida, aboard a McDonnell Douglas Delta II 7925-10 rocket. Wind was designed and manufactured by Martin Marietta Astro Space Division in East Windsor, New Jersey. The satellite is a spin-stabilized cylindrical satellite with a diameter of 2.4 m and a height of 1.8 m.It was deployed to study radio waves and plasma that occur in the solar wind and in the Earth's magnetosphere. The spacecraft's original mission was to orbit the Sun at the L1 Lagrangian point, but this was delayed to study the magnetosphere and near lunar environment when the SOHO and ACE spacecraft were sent to the same location. Wind has been at L1 continuously since May 2004, and is still operating as of May 2019. Wind currently has enough fuel to last over 50 years at L1. Wind continues to collect data and as of May 10, 2019 (not including 2019 publications) has contributed data to over 5000 refereed scientific publications.Mission operations are conducted from the Multi-Mission Operations Center (MMOC) in Building 14 at Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland.

Wind data can be accessed using the SPEDAS software.

Wind is the sister ship to GGS Polar.

Internal structure
Earth's magnetosphere
Solar wind
Research projects
Other magnetospheres
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